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Obituaries

Bruce Cook, 71; Wrote Mysteries Set in L.A., 18th Century England

November 18, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Bruce Cook, journalist, author and novelist who created Mexican American detective Chico Cervantes, and, writing as Bruce Alexander, penned historical novels featuring blind 18th century sleuth Sir John Fielding, has died. He was 71.

Cook died Nov. 9 at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center of a stroke, his family said.

His most recent novel, the 10th with Fielding as the protagonist, was "The Price of Murder," published earlier this year. Cook had also completed the manuscript of a first-person book tentatively titled "Qualms of Conscience: The Confessions of William Shakespeare," to be published by St. Martin's Press.

The popular Fielding series, which has been translated into nine languages, began with "Blind Justice" in 1994, and was based on the historical figure of the same name.

The real Fielding was a blind British magistrate who, with his brother, "Tom Jones" novelist Henry Fielding, created the Bow Street Runners, London's first police force.

A Times reviewer praised the 2000 entry in the series, "The Color of Death," for "humor and smart dialogue." The critic said that "Alexander does a remarkable job of re-creating 18th century London and, better yet, unlike some other authors of historical mysteries, he's careful to let the period detail enrich the story rather than stop it cold."

Washington Post Book World has called the Fielding mysteries "a wonderful series ... packed with history and lore, and ... altogether much fun."

Although those books may have earned Cook the greatest critical acclaim, he was particularly appreciated in Los Angeles, where he lived for much of the last 20 years, for adding a Mexican American protagonist to the city's long tradition of detective fiction.

"Basically I did it because it hadn't been done," Cook told The Times in 1992. "There had been a couple of Latino police detectives in books, but, to my knowledge, no private eye. And I thought it was high time -- this, after all, is an Hispanic city."

Cook's four novels featuring Antonio "Chico" Cervantes, who solves crimes both north and south of the border, were "Mexican Standoff" in 1988, "Rough Cut" in 1990, "Death as a Career Move" in 1992 and "The Sidewalk Hilton" in 1994.

Charles Champlin, the former Times arts editor who reviewed "Mexican Standoff" for the newspaper, complimented Cook for creating an L.A. cop turned private eye with "ethnic duality -- Chico likes both Scotch and Cuervo Gold" and praised the author for a fast-paced narrative and plot "lightly spiced with irony."

A Washington Post Book World reviewer called the novel "a standout example of good genre fiction" and said, "The plot is tight, with hairpin turns and hairbreadth escapes. The action is almost nonstop. At the same time, there are plenty of laughs, plenty of near-slapstick scenes."

Cook said he switched to the Fielding character only because of a more lucrative publishing contract, but always hoped to return to Cervantes.

Well-traveled and widely read, the novelist led a life almost as eclectic as his writing. He was born in Chicago, but his family moved frequently as his father, a train dispatcher, was given new assignments. The author earned a degree in literature from Chicago's Loyola University and served in the U.S. Army in Frankfurt, Germany, as a translator during the late 1950s.

His writing career began, he told The Times, "in all the public relations pits in Chicago," and with freelance articles for such publications as the National Catholic Reporter.

Cook subsequently worked as critic for the National Observer, senior editor at Newsweek, book editor for the Detroit News and USA Today, and writer for the Daily News of Los Angeles.

As a published author, he began with nonfiction -- "The Beat Generation" in 1971. He followed with a biography of Dalton Trumbo in 1977 and another of Bertold Brecht, "Brecht in Exile," in 1983. Cook also wrote a book of musical history, "Listen to the Blues" in 1973, and "The Town That Country Built: Welcome to Branson, Missouri" in 1993.

His first novel -- not a detective mystery -- was "Sex Life," set in Chicago and published in 1978, about the sexual revolution and its destruction of a central character.

Cook is survived by his wife of nine years, concert violinist Judith Aller; three children, Katy, Bob and Ceci, from his first marriage to the former Catherine Coghlan; three stepchildren, Sonja, Silja and Richard; an uncle, Merritt Moon, to whom he dedicated his last novel; and five grandchildren.

Any memorial donations may be sent to the Temple Akiba Religious School at 5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City.

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