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Animal instinct

Prisoner of Memory A Novel Denise Hamilton Scribner: 374 pp., $24

April 23, 2006|Susan Kandel | Susan Kandel is the author of the Cece Caruso mysteries, including "Not a Girl Detective" and the forthcoming "Shamus in the Green Room."

IF you read or write mysteries set in Southern California, Raymond Chandler is never far from your thoughts. This certainly seems true of Denise Hamilton, whose mystery novels, like Chandler's, capture the strange allure of a city in which everything is always in flux -- the beach house perched on the edge of a cliff, the relationships of the people inside it, the shifting sands below. But if Chandler's fiction was mythic and iconic, the invention of a onetime British civil servant who high-tailed it to the suburbs the moment he had enough cash, Hamilton, a former newspaper reporter, has her feet on the ground, offering a real-time feed from a place "so new that we can't even imagine what it's becoming."

"Prisoner of Memory," the latest installment in Hamilton's Eve Diamond series, opens with the intrepid Los Angeles Times reporter in search of a mountain lion spied grooming itself where the asphalt meets the urban wilderness of Griffith Park. In a city bedeviled by crime and corruption, "distraction is a drug," says Eve, whose job on this cold December morning, a few days shy of Christmas, is to feed the communal addiction with 1,500 colorful words, give or take a few. Instead of a 160-pound feline, Eve comes upon the body of a teenager in a Val Surf T-shirt and baggy cargo shorts, not far from a bullet casing, which mountain lions aren't known to leave behind.

The kid turns out to have been Denny Lukin, son of a mysterious pair of Russian emigres -- and a flesh-and-spilled-blood opportunity for Eve to feed her adrenaline addiction. Paired with fellow reporter Josh Brandywine, a once and future love interest, Eve launches an investigation into Denny's murder that leads her down a treacherous path strewn with a disgraced FBI agent, a former KGB femme fatale, a passel of Russian gangsters roaming the city in expensive suits, a long-lost cousin from the old country (who has a passion for Freddie Mercury and sour cream and whose sudden appearance on Eve's doorstep may not be a coincidence) and a lavender-scented hatbox filled with clues to her past.

The author revels in the smells, sounds, tastes and textures of Southern California: the fragrance of orange blossoms, the machine-gun patter of rain on a car roof, creek beds "where tumbled stones gleamed white as desiccated bone," the mottled skin of Royal Blenheim apricots. Here, the Cambodians rule the doughnut shops, Yucatec taco stands serve up incomparable cochinita, the Silver Lake district is home to a mongrel mix where "animators from the Midwest, drag queens, eighty-year-old dowagers, and nineteen-year-old surrealists all chow down on the $6.99 early bird special," and even ex-commie spies living in the Verdugo Mountains with their pit bulls have screenplays to peddle. Light-years away from the melting pot of 19th century New York City, Hamilton's post-millennial L.A. is a defiantly polyglot megalopolis.

It is also Eve's hunting ground. Not only do newshounds like herself "have to catch the fox," they also must "bring it back, clamped delicately in our jaws, by 5:00 p.m., unbloodied and still alive." Hamilton, as ever, is wonderful at evoking the thrill of the chase. Being a journalist makes Eve feel "like a swashbuckling pirate, navigating through vast, uncharted oceans, where the tides were constantly shifting, the currents sluggish, then speedy, the waves tossing up new menace, characters, and clues." News junkies will appreciate the vocabulary lesson: The "daily budget" lists the stories running in the next day's paper; "situationers" are the stories that aren't breaking news, which is to say those stories Eve avoids like the plague. No altruist, she is a woman on a mission, and as such, perfectly willing to manipulate her sources, to drink their tea while stealing their souls. Eve is the proverbial tough cookie, but instead of a heart of gold, hers is chrome: reflective, but not 100% pure.

Writing a mystery novel -- indeed, writing any kind of genre fiction -- is a lot like having sex: There are certain marks you've got to hit, but after that, the sky's the limit. Writing a mystery series means the mandate to keep it interesting is redoubled: Think married sex. I am happy to report that five books into it, Hamilton is up to the challenge. Eve's flawed character is a good example of Hamilton's ability to skew generic expectations. The sex scene that comes halfway through the book is another: Set in a fantasy hotel room that makes Eve think of Captain Kirk's love starship, complete with a pair of puffy white spacesuits with Velcro crotches, it ricochets from parody to erotic fantasy to emotional devastation. Nor is the novel's denouement routine. Without revealing anything, I can say that it takes the old saw about the life you save being your own and deftly turns it inside out and backward.

When it comes to prose, Chandler is a tough act to follow. My only quibble with "Prisoner of Memory" would be the occasional infelicitous metaphor (bullets that glint like malevolent jewels; Valley breezes that flutter like chiffon scarves). But these are far outnumbered by many startling moments of clarity: the elaborate preparation of Turkish coffee described as "kitchen voodoo"; the McMansion ethos encapsulated in a chandelier hanging from "an industrial-strength gold chain." Journalism preaches economy of language, and Hamilton's latest novel is a testament to the importance of doing the legwork to get it just right.

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