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Mysteries

A Likable but Flawed Hero in an Edgy, Dark Story

April 29, 2001|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I have notoriety because of this face," the complex young protagonist-narrator of T. Jefferson Parker's ninth novel, "Silent Joe" (Hyperion, $23.95, 341 pages), tells us early on. He's referring to the hideous scar he's carried his whole life, thanks to a drunken, vengeful father who doused him with battery acid in his crib.

Joe uses a hat and Old World manners to distract people from his physical scars. He's more successful in hiding the emotional ones from everyone except the charming but devious Orange County politician, Will Trona, who plucked him from an orphanage and raised him as his son. Joe begins his story on a fateful night when Will has brokered the release of a kidnap victim. Joe, his ever-faithful second in command, is there to witness the plan go awry. Will is murdered. The kidnap victim disappears. And Joe, who has been kept in the dark about most of Will's wheeling and dealing, is left to pick up the pieces and avenge his foster father.

Ostensibly, "Silent Joe" is an edgy crime novel, pitting a likable but flawed hero against an assortment of loathsome power players for whom murder has become a business expediency. It's a bankable premise, and Parker has the skill to sharpen its edges and darken its shadows to noir perfection.

What's surprising here is the fluid way this novel of suspense flows into a passionate love story and eventually into a remarkably affecting coming-of-age tale. There's a similarity between "Joe's" setup and that of Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn," the National Book Critics Circle Winner in which an orphan with Tourette's syndrome is rescued by a genial fixer whose murder begins its hero's maturation. Parker tips "Joe's" hat to Lethem in his acknowledgments, Parker's approach to the neoclassic private-eye tale is bolder and ultimately more effective.

Eschewing such modernist tools as irony or satire, he shows us Joe's facade, which, though famously unbeautiful, is as typically cool and unemotional as Sam Spade's, then moves on to the heart beating rapidly beneath. By giving us a young detective in full, Parker brings off the difficult task of celebrating the genre while transcending it.

*

Speaking of Brooklyn, motherless or otherwise, "Hollowpoint" (Random House, $24.95, 279 pages) is a first novel by Rob Reuland, a senior assistant district attorney in that borough. It focuses on, no surprise, a young Brooklyn assistant district attorney, Andrew "Gio" Giobberti. There, one hopes, the similarity ends, since the fictional character is sloughing through life, all but overwhelmed by the accidental vehicular death of his 5-year-old daughter and his own guilt for forgetting to fasten her seat belt.

As a sort of self-punishment, possibly self-annihilation, he gnaws the hands of those who offer him brief solace and behaves as badly as he can. Assigned the case of a teenage drug dealer charged with the dead-bang shooting of his 14-year-old girlfriend, he proceeds to shamble through the prosecutorial paces, ignoring evidence favoring the suspect until he reaches the point at which he will either perish or persevere.

It's a compelling work, dark and downbeat, though not without its moments of graveyard laughter. But, despite an assortment of blurbs to the contrary, the only danger to Giobberti comes from himself, the only chills from the condition of life in Brooklyn's ghetto. What we have instead is a character study, and a powerful one at that. Labeling it a thriller may sell a few extra copies, but it doesn't do suspense-seeking readers or Reuland any favors.

*

How does Donald E. Westlake manage to write so many books without quality falling victim to quantity? Better not to waste time trying to figure it out, especially when there's a new Westlake, "Bad News" (Mysterious Press, $23.95, 342 pages), to devour. This one is, by my rough count, the 10th in his series featuring hapless thief John Dortmunder and his equally unfortunate miscreant crew.

As the author describes his antihero, Dortmunder is "a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness." This time the shady caper involves grave-robbing, casino scammers, small-town justice and a Native American princess of sorts, along with the usual double- and triple-crosses, screwball characters and curveball pitches.

The author's regulars are delightful company, and his corkscrew plots are fun to follow. But it's the added touches that make the books so uniquely Westlakean. Like the pale Manhattan DNA law expert whose name, Max Schreck, conjures up images of both O.J. Dream Team-ster Barry Scheck and silent film actor Max Schreck, who, according to a recent movie, not only portrayed a vampire but was one.

And a discussion among thieves of the fine distinction separating the terms "burgle" and "rob." My feeling is when Westlake's funny felons break through your defenses and provoke a chuckle, that's a burgle. When anybody else tries a comedy caper, that's a rob.

*

Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books.

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