Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Page 2 / IDEAS, TRENDS, BUZZ AND STYLE | Bookshelf

A Powerful Beginning, Sturdy Plot and Credible Characters

October 22, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lynn Hightower's "The Debt Collector" (Delacorte Press, $23.95, 308 pages) opens with Cincinnati plainclothes detective Sonora Blair and her partner, Sam Delarosa, arriving at the scene of a devastating home-invasion crime. As the two investigators work their way through the blood-splattered premises, making note of the brutally slain members of what seems to have been a typical American family, Sonora's thoughts are of her own children. In a bedroom, she discovers the matriarch, blood gushing from a ghastly knife wound, a mercifully unharmed baby in her arms. The dying mother tells the detective that "the Angel" gave her the baby and told her to hide. But who is the Angel? The woman dies before she can answer.

It's a powerful beginning and, though its grim images hover over the rest of the novel, the plot is sturdy enough to support them. Most writers use third-person narration as a convenient device to shift points of view from protagonist to victim to killer and back again. Hightower does it the hard way: She stays focused on her all-too-human and humane heroine, alternating Sonora's search for the killers with her off-duty problems and joys as the widowed mother of two rapidly maturing kids. Fortunately, the character is believable and substantial enough to justify such scrutiny, even after three previous exposures in "Flashpoint," "Eyeshot" and "No Good Deed."

The detective's family, friends and foes are equally credible creations, from her 11-year-old daughter to a surprisingly helpful retired cop named Jack Van Owen, whose career is the stuff of legends. The police procedures seem authentic. The talk is smart and has the ring of reality. Like her heroine, Hightower is a pro who knows how to get the job done.

*

Scott Phillips' short debut novel, "The Ice Harvest" (Ballantine, $19.95, 217 pages), is another of the current crop of neo-noir thrillers that publishers seem to think will be the Next Big Thing. Descended from the gritty Depression tales of James M. Cain, as filtered through the darkly humorous cynicism of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, it takes place in Wichita, Kan., on a frosty 1979 Christmas Eve night of the soul. Its antihero, Charlie Arglist, is a corrupt lawyer who has several hours to kill before departing town with money skimmed from the local organized crime chief.

He's cooling his heels until his partner, the one holding the loot, is ready to leave too. If we're given the reason for the partner's delay, I missed it. In these kinds of terse crime novels, details, if given at all, are presented on the fly. Following Charlie from topless bars to massage parlors to a truly unpleasant visit to the home of his ex-wife's family to the empty house of the partner where he finds signs of torture, we have to race to keep up with the guy. Though he's going nowhere, he's moving fast and meeting people he doesn't bother to introduce.

At some point we may well begin to wonder why we're bothering. OK, the dialogue is sharp. The people are oddly intriguing. Some of the situations are nasty-funny. And, as the plot begins to congeal like the blood on his partner's workbench, with Charlie struggling to find the cash before the mob boss finds him, some suspense is generated. But the heart of the novel is a bit too hard and cold. Charlie is a selfish and venal sorry excuse for a man. He does have a spark of human kindness, but, as Phillips would have it, this is something of a character flaw, and one that can lead to trouble.

*

Joyce Spizer's "I'm Okay, You're Dead" (Intercontinental Publishing, $17.95, 250 pages) is the second novel in her series featuring Camellia "Mel" Walker, a beautiful and resourceful private detective who lives and works in the Orange County seacoast town of Harbour Pointe. Mel is divorced, shares the office with a gay associate, maintains a friendly adversarial relationship with a homicide cop named X-Ray and goes to extraordinary (often unlawful) lengths to aid a client. The author is a private detective who states that her tales are supposedly fictionalized versions of actual file cases. What this means apparently is the novel's details of the private-eye game seem authentic enough, but Spizer does not let them hinder her from delivering a pretty wild yarn involving a murdered thief, half of a $50,000 bank note, an oppressed topless bar owner, a plastic surgeon who aggressively merchandises, and some very curious real estate.

A little editing could have touched up some rough spots, and using an earthquake as a deus ex machina isn't exactly playing fair, even in a novel set in California. But "Okay" is definitely OK--a brisk, often funny entertainment with a couple of unexpected twists at the end.

*

The Times reviews mystery books every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman on audio books.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|