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Mysteries

New Mexico Procedural Is Also a Continuing Personal Story

September 24, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Novelist Michael McGarrity has said he considers his books about New Mexico lawman Kevin Kerney to be episodes in a single continuing story. "The Judas Judge" (Dutton, $23.95, 288 pages), the fifth and current episode, suggests he may have a point. It begins with a striking set piece: Kerney, his reflexes sluggish from bodily damage sustained in his last book, gets caught in a shootout with an arrogant, crooked cop. It's a contemporary version of the beginning of the old "Gunsmoke" TV series. The difference is that the victory, though highly suspenseful, takes second place to its psychological consequences for Kerney, stirring up the ashes of Vietnam.

The plot is strong. Six apparent strangers are assassinated on a single night. It looks like a slaying spree, but Kerney, chief deputy of the New Mexico State Police, thinks five of the victims were targeted randomly to cover up the killing of the sixth, the powerful judge of the title. His investigation into the jurist's family and social life, interrupted at times by a subplot involving police corruption, constitutes a very readable police procedural.

What sets the book (and the series) apart is the way Kerney reacts to events both professional and personal. Here, in addition to solving the murders, he's forced to confront two difficult life decisions. One concerns his past. Poking into the murders, he discovers that his long-ago romance with a Native American has resulted in a son, an edgy reservation lawman who is himself a father. Those sections of the novel in which Kerney attempts a rapprochement with the young man, using the same straightforward, unsentimental approach he employs in interrogations, are extremely effective.

His other decision is about his future. In a previous novel, he inherited a large section of countryside that he's about to sell to the Nature Conservancy for enough money to allow him to retire in luxury. Feeling job burnout (the gunfight being a last straw) and acceding to the wishes of his new wife, Sara, a career Army officer, he has just about made up his mind to hand in his gun and badge. But can he stand the stress of inactivity? Rest assured he makes the right choice.

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It occurred to me in the middle of Faye Kellerman's "The Stalker" (Morrow, $26, 384 pages) that she may be showing McGarrity and other authors the way to the never-ending series. Actually, it was the "Star Trek" folks who came up with the idea. It's called: the next generation. In the course of 11 mysteries, Kellerman has taken her protagonists, the calm, humane LAPD Detective Peter Decker and the bright, beautiful and defiantly Orthodox Rina Lazarus, from first meeting ("The Ritual Bath") through courtship ("Sacred and Profane" and "Milk and Honey") and honeymoon ("Day of Atonement") on to parenthood ("Grievous Sin") and beyond. Now she's moved them (particularly Rina) to the background. The focus of "The Stalker," both book and antagonist, is on Cynthia Decker, Peter's daughter from a previous marriage, who has made the unlikely but, considering bloodline, understandable leap from Ivy League grad to police rookie.

As in the books prominently featuring Peter and Rina, Kellerman is at her best when dealing with people situations. Those sections of the novel devoted to office and sexual politics, the frustrations of idealistic young female cops who are being shunned or seduced by their macho associates read like the distaff take on "The New Centurions." By that I mean they seem both believable and authentic. Those covering Cindy's specific on-the-job problems stemming from being the opinionated "big mouth" offspring of a high-ranking detective are effective too. Her age and disposition account for a multitude of bad judgment calls (including a couple that nearly kill her). They also give the character room to grow.

The plot involving the stalking of Cindy works well too, particularly in removing the wraps on her tough cop dad and sending him into overprotective father overdrive. But the main mystery--involving carjacking and revenge killing--has so many complicated twists and turns it lost me on the curves.

*

Mystery fans, writers and book people attending the Bouchercon 2000 convention in Denver earlier this month voted Agatha Christie the greatest writer of the century (won't the descendants of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle be dismayed?). This was a stroke of publisher good fortune for Pocket Books, which has just released "The Complete Christie" ($35, hardcover; $18.95, trade paperback, 454 pages). Compiled by Matthew Bunson, the encyclopedia not only lists and describes Christie's 76 novels, 158 short stories and 15 plays, it also features entries devoted to her characters and to actors famous for portraying the most enduring of them. Know who was the first thespian to play Hercule Poirot? Charles Laughton, in the 1928 stage play "Alibi," adapted from the author's famous "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."

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

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