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Mysteries

A Thrilling Hunt for a Predator

January 02, 2002|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Graceless, stylistically impaired authors often achieve success by laying on flashy locales, gaudy characters and concepts so high they'd have posed a problem for Sir Edmund Hillary. The real pros, such as Thomas Perry, don't need the fancy stuff. "Pursuit" (Random House, 374 pages, $24.95), Perry's 12th novel, is based on one of crime fiction's most familiar concepts--the hunter and the hunted. In this case, the latter is the bad guy, an extremely capable hit man named Varney.

The book opens on a compelling if merciless description of one of his signature jobs, the slaughter of 13 diners and employees--men, women and children--at a small Louisville restaurant. A criminology professor named Millikan is our guide through the carnage, pointing out the murderer's expertise and ruthlessness; he killed everyone to hide the identity of a specific victim.

Concerned that the police may be no match for the amazingly efficient assassin, Millikan suggests to a grieving father that he hire Roy Prescott, a specialist in tracking and thinning the world's predator population.

Prescott is, in fact, the antithesis of the author's most famous creation--Jane Whitefield, the Native American "guide" whose specialty is hiding potential victims. Once Prescott takes the job, the novel shifts into a gear so high that putting the book aside is no longer an option. Twists, turns, mind games, traps, escapes and violent encounters, all convincingly detailed and precisely timed, are just some of the lures the ever-inventive Perry strings out, building to the inevitable final shootout. It's a bravura performance from one of the few crime writers who never lets you down.

It's hard to believe that a mystery series about a multimillionaire sleuth and his psychic Siamese tabbies could challenge the popularity of such bestselling purveyors of semi-realistic sleuthing as Robert B. Parker, Jonathan Kellerman and Patricia Cornwell, but that's what Lilian Jackson Braun's "The Cat Who ... " books do on an annual basis. What's her secret? Not the mystery element, which is adequate at best, nor the cast of characters, credible but typical rural types in the main. Nor is it those darn cats, which are, truth be known, a bit too darn cute.

Braun's strong suit is her storytelling voice, which is filled with enough sense of wonder and whimsy to turn her yarns into ideal bedtime tales for grown-ups. In tone they are sophisticated updates on the Uncle Wiggly stories with the dilettantish James "Qwill" Qwilleran standing in for the fuzzy-eared gentleman rabbit. She's also created an irresistible location--the little town of Pickax in Moose County, described as being "400 miles north of everywhere"--that is cozy and comfortable, even with its alarming crime rate.

Such is the lure of the burg that one doesn't question for a minute why the filthy rich Qwilleran would pack up his checkbook and cats and move there, rather than L.A. or New York or Paris or Rome, for that matter. In her 24th novel in the series, "The Cat Who Went Up the Creek" (Putnam, 226 pages, $23.95), Qwill and his precocious pets take a trip to nearby Black Creek to see if an inn owned by friends is really haunted. They wind up investigating the murder of a gold nugget-bearing former guest.

As usual, there are subplots beaucoup, covering such topics as Qwill's book-in-progress, "Tall and Short Tales," and a local production of "The Pirates of Penzance," all making this year's trip to Moose County as enjoyable as the past 23.

Last year Sallie Bissell made her mystery writing debut with "In the Forest of Harm," a powerful first novel featuring Mary Crow, a half-Cherokee assistant district attorney in Atlanta, whose camping trip with two women friends in the North Carolina mountains turns into a nightmarish, distaff "Deliverance." The new Crow outing, "A Darker Justice" (Bantam, 352 pages, $22.95), gets her into the Carolina wilderness again, this time on the trail of her kidnapped mentor, a federal judge who made the hit list of FaithAmerica, an ultraconservative group slightly to the right of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mary is helped here by a no-nonsense FBI agent named Daniel Safer. She's pretty no-nonsense herself, though the book's premise--involving the assassination of left-leaning federal judges by a spectacularly unusual group of killers--seemed to me, even in these days of unthinkable acts, a trifle de trop.

*

Dick Lochte, the author of the prize-winning novel, "Sleeping Dog," and its sequel, "Laughing Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other Wednesday.

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