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It's a world of hurt

Good Morning, Killer: April Smith, Alfred A. Knopf: 358 pp., $24 Cold Pursuit, T. Jefferson Parker, Hyperion: 360 pp., $23.95 Persuader, Lee Child, Delacorte: 352 pp., $24.95 The Dogs of Riga, Henning Mankell, Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, The New Press: 326 pp., $24.95

May 18, 2003|Eugen Weber | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

The world we live in is precarious: Security, status and human relations are fragile; even personality is fungible, and April Smith is here to demonstrate these quiddities. In "Good Morning, Killer," Special Agent Ana Grey, whom we first met in "North of Montana," sticks close to her old stamping ground. She works on the disappearance of a 15-year-old Santa Monica girl, Juliana, which soon turns into a kidnapping-torture-and-rape situation.

The abject psychotic who took Juliana lets her go, but she is left badly damaged. Ana, who in her quest for the perpetrator bonds with the traumatized girl, will also suffer abrasions. The investigation is conducted in tandem by the FBI and the Santa Monica Police Department, represented mainly by Det. Andrew Beringer, beneficiary of an on-again, off-again affair with Ana. For more than 350 pages their romance blows hot and cold. But Andrew has a short fuse and so has Ana, and one of their lovers' quarrels turns into an incandescent face-off in which Ana shoots her lover turned aggressor.

Suspended from the FBI pending a trial in which Andrew will feature as chief witness for the prosecution, the indomitable woman ignores the conditions of her bail to continue tracking Juliana's abductor (now a suspect in a string of brutish maiden-murders) and finally lurches to his capture. Which does not put an end to her vicissitudes nor to the perils dogging her steps. But these will be resolved in the last strands of the narrative skein.

All of which is fine: grainy, urgent, syncopated, sinuously plotted and deftly delivered. The trouble lies with Ana. As determined, resourceful and mettlesome as ever when the book begins, she deteriorates as she goes along. Workplace frictions, frettings and contrarieties -- above all love gone awry -- nag at her and at the reader too. Frayed by soul aches, corroded by caustic despair, Ana grows brittle, worries, vomits, erupts into crying fits, swings wildly from soppy moods to frenzied rages. It is hard to blame her for being wrenched and enraged by a society that uses and discards people, and she does overcome depressions, stings of pain and squalls of tears to face the responsibilities that crowd her. But she sounds less and less like a good, reliable agent or like an action story's heroine. At her next appearance, it would be nice to meet her frisky old self again.

Fans of T. Jefferson Parker, on the other hand, will not be disappointed. "Cold Pursuit" is a chip off the old block-and-tackle -- and a jagged splinter it is. We're in San Diego, where for three generations Irish McMichaels and Portuguese Bragas have feuded, killed or beaten each other silly. It amounts to 50 years of hatred and vengeance, with children and grandchildren sparring over the sins of the fathers, what happened and why and who was to blame.

When old Pete Braga is bludgeoned to death in his mansion, Homicide Det. Tom McMichael gets the call, and Braga's nurse, tall, blond Sally Rainwater, is figured for prime suspect. But nothing is as simple as it seems, not even a victim with his head bashed in nor the drops of his blood on Sally's boots. So we're in for a long ride, just as we hoped: a convoluted police investigation, ranging in many directions yet creeping forward on prying, probing, deduction, hunches and happenstance.

The murdered man had figured largely in city politics and land deals, where you acquire money as well as enemies. He had gotten out of the tuna fishing business just when the industry began to founder, got into real estate, then into a car dealership: Pete Braga Ford. So if you want to learn about tuna fishing and the politico-economic shenanigans of San Diego, this is a good place to start. Meanwhile, Tom falls hard for Sally, decides she's not a suspect anymore, then runs into a brick wall of concealed evidence and a meander of conjectures.

Too many leads cloud the broth: Braga family grudges, fluctuating testamentary dispositions, unpredictable associates, volatile attorneys, bent cops. McMichael keeps trawling through murky waters. So do his fellow cops, with road kill on the side, until a devastating semi-finale and a blunderingly explosive sequel. The writing is crisp, the plot unfolds with increasing urgency, even blunders pay off, and it all works out in the end. You can't ask for more.

The publisher's blurb describes Lee Child as the best thriller writer you might not yet be reading, and for once a blurb speaks true. Child deserves to be galloped through because his writing is exuberant, ebullient and exciting. "Persuader's" hero, Jack Reacher, is resolute, ruthless, sure-footed and moral the way Raymond Chandler's Marlowe was moral -- indifferent to laws and to what we whimsically call justice, interested only in doing the right thing. The right thing turns out to involve destruction and slaughter on a grand scale, but that's all right, because the villains deserve to be rubbed out with extreme prejudice, and they usually are.

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