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A Cunning Killer Is Loose in Michael Connelly's Los Angeles

February 04, 2001|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two of Michael Connelly's relatively recent mysteries, "Trunk Music" and "Angels Flight," are clearly cover-tagged as Harry Bosch novels. That is, they feature the author's primary series character, the semi-depressed but always resourceful lone wolf LAPD detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. No such assertion is made on the jacket of "A Darkness More Than Night" (Little, Brown, $25.95, 421 pages), though Bosch is a prominent character throughout. The reason is that this is really more of a Terry McCaleb novel.

The retired FBI agent is the hero of Connelly's 1998 bestseller, "Blood Work," in which he undertook the arduous task of tracking down a particularly devious serial killer while recuperating from a heart transplant. Since then, McCaleb has regained his health, married a character from the earlier book and become the proud father of a baby daughter. Though his new low-pressure family life on Catalina Island seems idyllic, he allows himself to be seduced into one more job--an analysis and critique of a stalled murder investigation. It's a disturbing crime, an apparent ritualistic slaying, marked by taunting clues--among them a collection of owls and Latin phrases. These, and other bits and pieces of information, lead McCaleb to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and the inevitable conclusion that the artist's namesake must be the killer.

Connelly presents the material in such a way as to suggest that his most popular hero may indeed fit the profile of a homicidal maniac. Even if you have trouble buying into that, no matter how thick the signs of guilt are piled, this tantalizing novel has more than enough other elements to keep your adrenalin pumping. Chief among them is the desire to learn how the resourceful author can possibly set things right. How will Connelly get Harry off the hook without turning the vulnerable McCaleb, who has expressed his belief in Bosch's guilt, into a laughing-stock? The answer comes in a climax as chilling and suspenseful as it is satisfying.

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Some time before John Dunning became an award-winning mystery writer with his popular novels about bookseller-sleuth Cliff Janeway ("Booked to Die," "The Bookman's Wake"), he'd achieved more than a measure of success as a radio historian and author of a 1976 Baedeker to golden-age radio programs, "Tune In Yesterday." In "Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime" (Scribner, $26, 478 pages), he utilizes both areas of expertise for a lengthy yarn set in the summer of '42, when radio show production and World War II were in full flower.

Dunning's protagonist, Jack Dulaney, is a depressed drifter-novelist who, while serving time on this coast (for disturbing the peace and resisting arrest), gets word that Holly Carnahan, a girl he loved and lost, is in trouble. He breaks free and bloodhounds his way from her last known address to Regina Beach, a resort along the New Jersey shore. There, to his dismay, he discovers that Holly doesn't appear to need nor want his help. Using a new name, she has begun a promising career as a band vocalist.

But Dulaney's efforts are not without one reward: By poking into the disappearance of Holly's father, a worker at the local radio station, he stumbles upon a creative job that he truly enjoys--writing dramatic plays for the popular medium. The fly in the ointment or, to use a more apropos analogy, the static in the speaker is that the station has been infiltrated by nasty Nazi lovers, one of them a vicious murderer.

When Dunning takes us to the heart of old-time radio production, the results are wonderful to behold. But the spy story is fairly clunky and ordinary. "Two O'Clock" is like an old radio show that doesn't really jell, but it's not quite bad enough to make you get up and switch the station.

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If you're trying to drop a pound or two, you'll need a word of warning about "Only the Wicked" (Write Way, $24.95, 335 pages), Gary Phillips' latest novel featuring Los Angeles private eye Ivan Monk. The sleuth eats often and well--from Yank's Texas barbecue to Dodger Dogs to omelets from Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles.

Phillips describes these meals so effectively you'd better have a bowl of celery stalks and carrots at your elbow. Vivid descriptions are the author's long suit. By artfully mixing real places, brand names and historical fact and trivia with cleverly disguised fiction, he creates a series of remarkably dimensional set pieces. Then he populates them with characters of substance whose language is often as rich and pungent as the food they consume.

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