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Urban casualties

Sugar Skull, Denise Hamilton, Scribner: 304 pp., $25 City of Strangers, John Shannon, Carroll & Graf: 272 pp., $24 The Bone Vault, Linda Fairstein, Scribner: 388 pp., $25

June 15, 2003|Eugen Weber | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

The visible body count in Denise Hamilton's "Sugar Skull" is relatively limited; the traditional unities of place, time and action are only slightly stretched; but the lust, greed and turmoil are exhilarating.

Vincent Chevalier, a sound engineer, breaks through the security of the Los Angeles Times to seek reporter Eve Diamond's help in locating his 15-year-old daughter, Isabel, who has disappeared from home. An excellent student, she had taken to hanging out with an edgy crowd, wearing a dog collar and punking her hair soon after getting an A on an English 202 paper entitled "Rimbaud -- Punk's Original Bad Boy." By page 15, Isabel has turned up dead in a squalid East Hollywood squat. But that is only the beginning.

In a short while, Eve Diamond is attending a celebrity party in the Los Feliz mansion of Carter Langdon III, who is running for mayor, and his wife, Venus Delaviglia Langdon, whose doctoral dissertation on the Roman poet Horace won France's Medici Prize. Since things in Los Feliz move fast, Venus, the glamorous socialite, is soon found floating in her pool, as naked as she is dead.

The weekend over, counting 40 L.A. murders overall, Eve is assigned to write a feature story about the Aguilars, a family of millionaire Mexican American music promoters. She falls, or begins to subside, into the arms of Silvio, one of the Aguilar sons, only to learn that his brother Rubio was also a casualty of that fatal weekend.

The door is now open for a course in the Mexican subculture of L.A., in which tribal taste includes an appetite for the music of rocanrol, corridos perrones and narco corridos as well as the traditional sugar-skull confections made for Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead"). And the linkage between the sugar skulls that keep popping up in the text and the offings of Isabel, Rubio and Venus is so absorbing that you don't want to stop reading. So, better start now.

Also in Los Angeles, John Shannon's "City of Strangers" displays more of our urban charms and the contemporary orthodoxies of virtuous diversity. Private investigator Jack Liffey has sworn off the demon rum, but neither his love life nor his detective business is doing well. Then an old, opinionated friend calls on him to find his runaway daughter, and the daughter's trail meshes with that of four Iranian lads who have vanished out of a posh school, feral Mexican drug dealers and virulent Muslim terrorists. Liffey's detecting proves secondary to his human, sexual and canine relations, his encounters with gutter-mouthed schoolgirls, gurus with recipes for all ills of the soul and huggy scenes with an appealing daughter and with women vying for his attention.

Shannon dishes out L.A. local color dipped deep in moral sauce. He throws in etchings of our ethnic geography, nutty sects of idealists manipulated by grim fanatics, a psychiatrist as demented as but less homicidal than other bigots, members of the local Iranian diaspora with kids liable to turn into pure-of-heart zealots and all kinds of befuddled bods, each with his own liturgy, incantations and illusions. Liffey is accident-prone, depressed, mixed up and fun to hear. Like the people he deals with, he's given to welling tears. But there's always hope for a man who doesn't like carrots.

"The Bone Vault" is Linda Fairstein's fifth turbocharged mystery featuring Alexandra Cooper, an assistant district attorney in charge of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, which works closely with the Special Victims Unit of the NYPD. The caper begins in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at a festive reception for media and wealthy donors. Pierre Thibodoux, recently imported from Paris to head the Met, is organizing a joint exhibition with the Museum of Natural History -- the first event to bring together the great rivals. Supposed to be about a celebration of fabulous beasts like mermaids and unicorns, both exhibition and reception are really about marketing two great New York showplaces and filling the cash registers.

But well-laid plans go fast awry when an ancient sarcophagus marked for shipment is found to contain not the expected mummy but the remains of a Cloisters intern: 29-year-old Katrina Grooten, a South African scholar specializing in medieval art and also, more discreetly, in the recovery of native remains plundered by unfeeling Western archeologists and scientists.

There are droves of suspects, an abundance of diversions and detailed denunciations of atrocities perpetrated by white folk in the name of enlightenment, education and science. Alex Cooper and her cop sidekicks juggle a plethora of cases at one time: equal opportunity predators, lunatics, cyberpunks, pedophiles, cretins and run-of-the-mill lawbreakers, not counting officers of the law.

But the real stars are the museums themselves, with their shadowy miles of halls, stairs, vaults, crannies; their icono-, paleo-, archeo-, techno- and anthro- holdings in the millions; their swarms of personnel; their endless invitations to criminal grand guignol. That's where Alex and the NYPD hunt the killer and solve a chilling puzzle Fairstein has contrived for us.

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