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This time, a more sensitive detective

The Fallen A Novel T. Jefferson Parker William Morrow: 324 pp., $24.95

April 10, 2006|Michael Harris | Special to The Times

MAYBE the California crime novel had nowhere else to go. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald established its hard-boiled style, which a thousand imitators turned into a collection of cliches. Then James Ellroy went way beyond hard-boiled, to blackened and smoking at the bottom of a bone-dry saucepan. Nobody could beat that, so when T. Jefferson Parker started writing whodunits set in Orange County and San Diego, he moved in the other direction -- toward emotion, vulnerability, even romance.

The hero of "The Fallen," Robbie Brownlaw, is a San Diego homicide detective, but he's far from the burned-out, tight-lipped characters Humphrey Bogart used to play. At 29, Brownlaw is a nice guy, inclined, as much as is possible for a cop, to give other human beings the benefit of the doubt. He has even had a religious awakening. In the prologue -- a much-overused device in popular fiction, but Parker makes this one work -- a crazed wrestler throws Brownlaw out of a sixth-story window. On the way down, he "suddenly believed in the God he had doubted for all his life, his conversion completed in a fraction of a second." Brownlaw also feels certain that his love for his wife, Gina, "would be a factor in the outcome here." Indeed, a hotel awning breaks his fall and saves his life.

Garrett Asplundh, the ex-cop whose murder Brownlaw and partner McKenzie Cortez are assigned to solve, was also a man of feeling. After Asplundh's 3-year-old daughter drowned in a swimming pool, his wife left him and he started drinking heavily. An investigator for the city's Ethics Authority, an anti-corruption watchdog group, Asplundh was still hoping to reconcile with his wife when, en route to a date with her, he parked near a personal shrine, the bridge in Balboa Park where he had first proposed to her, and was shot dead, evidently by someone he knew and trusted.

Brownlaw and Cortez discover that Asplundh had a second date planned -- with state officials to whom he was going to turn over videotapes of prostitutes cavorting with San Diego vice officers, politicians and the Wall Street analyst who is about to rate the city's bonds, saving or losing it tens of millions of dollars. In other words, Asplundh had plenty of potential enemies. Like any other police procedural, "The Fallen" is mostly the story of how the detectives doggedly separate wheat from chaff.

Brownlaw, however, has a unique ability. His near-fatal plunge -- which has brought him local fame as the "falling detective" -- has endowed him with synesthesia, the mixing of sensory impressions. When people talk to him, little blobs of color issuing from their mouths clue him in to the emotions behind their words. Grief is black, for instance, and envy green. Most usefully for Brownlaw's line of work, he can nearly always tell when people are lying.

This could make solving the case all too easy, but Parker has the good sense to complicate matters by giving every suspect something to lie about, from the madam whose high-priced "squeaky clean" girls drive around San Diego in Volkswagen convertibles to the 85-year-old city budget committee chairman whose priorities neglect the poor. Old-fashioned venality mingles with post-9/11 paranoia. Everyone is filming and wiretapping everyone else, and even Brownlaw and Cortez seem indifferent to the civil-liberties implications of it all.

"[Y]ou put your index finger into the scanner down at the border in San Ysidro or TJ, and guess what?" a mogul in antiterrorism software brags to Cortez. "I've got ... databases digging into your past like earthmovers on speed.... I'm going to be able to tell everything about you -- physical, financial, criminal, social. I'll have the name, address, and Social Security number of the doctor who pulled your tonsils when you were four ... and I'll have the name and address of your allegedly secret lover by the time you get your finger out of the scanner. If you are a threat, you will be exposed. If you might be a threat, you will be exposed. If you are only the reflection of a shadow cast by the memory of a possible threat, you will be exposed." Does this give Cortez nightmare visions of Big Brother? No, she thinks the mogul is cute and begins dating him.

Romance trumps everything else, including the once-ironclad rule that a detective should always follow the money. Here, the greed and corruption are red herrings. The key to the case -- and Brownlaw comes to realize this only after Gina inexplicably leaves him and he takes the same wrenching emotional fall as Asplundh -- lies in the recesses of the human heart, where, we fondly hope, no security camera or computer search engine can ever intrude. Whether our hope is justified is beside the point. Parker skillfully appeals to it, and we can expect Brownlaw -- single again, and what a catch! -- to make another appearance soon.


Michael Harris is the author of the novel "The Chieu Hoi Saloon."

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