THE posthumous publication of an author's last work leaves the reviewer with a daunting task. A book intended as a snapshot of a particular time suddenly takes on an air of greater importance, for its mere existence is weighted with finality and posterity -- instead of the contemporary feel perhaps more appropriate.
The final novel from Douglas Anne Munson (1948-2003), who used the pseudonym Mercedes Lambert as something of an alter ego, comes with heavy dollops of back story (revealed in greater detail in a feature published in this paper last week), lending the eerily titled "Ghosttown" a sense of added gravitas. It is, in the end, a series mystery, reliant on narrative tropes, full of bantering dialogue and unduly hampered by plot twists that don't always add up. But the book also shows an admirable taste for narrative risk and serves as a tantalizing glimpse of an alternate universe that granted Munson success on a par with her contemporaries in crime instead of her real-life descent into career, health and personal oblivion.
"Ghosttown" marks the third appearance of Whitney Logan, criminal defense lawyer and emotional refugee who prefers lifting weights to social interaction, who believes "God is an accountant . . . [and] that with a good pair of designer sunglasses and an expensive pair of black high heels you can go anywhere in the world." No longer the naive, idealistic law school graduate introduced in "Dogtown" (1991) or even the newly jaded, guilt-ridden woman who took even more hard knocks in "Soultown" (1996), Whitney, well aware she's no Clarence Darrow, is in the grip of cynicism that's aging her far past the ripe old age of 27.
Saddled with credit card debts and struggling to keep up the facade of a successful law practice, Whitney barely affords the rent on her office in a seedy East L.A. neighborhood. The gulf between her privileged upbringing -- and its commensurate high expectations -- and the grind of mounting professional and financial adversity has only widened further.
Like the previous two volumes, right away Lambert introduces Whitney's main personal conflict: her relationship with Lupe Ramos, the former prostitute now working as the young lawyer's secretary. "We'd been through so much together I thought we were, in some mismatched way, friends," muses Whitney early on, even though the bond is so tenuous at the beginning of "Ghosttown" that Lupe plans to leave if she's not paid on time.
In a lesser writer's hands, the push and pull between book-smart Whitney and streetwise Lupe would be ripped out of a 1980s action-comedy playbook, but Lambert has more meaningful things to say about a loner's deep longing for emotional connection and truth that almost echoes L.M. Montgomery's constant drumbeat in the "Anne of Green Gables" novels of finding a "bosom friend." No matter how wildly the plot spins out of control, Whitney and Lupe form the series' core through their relationship with each other and to the outside world.
Lambert's outside world travels mean streets left alone by Chandler, Hammett and their male mystery-writing descendants. Latino and Korean neighborhoods figured prominently in "Dogtown" and "Soultown," and the Los Angeles Native American community gets its due in "Ghosttown" in the form of Tony Red Wolf, assigned to Whitney after he's arrested for beating up his girlfriend, Shirley Yellowbird. A few hours later, a late-night phone call sends Whitney to the San Gabriel Mission, where Tony, insisting he's innocent, directs her to Shirley's dismembered body. Whitney's excitement at graduating to murder defense overrides any nagging instincts that the tableau may be a harbinger of more sinister things to come.
Even though Lambert believes in her material and tries hard to shoehorn the plot with understated effects and plain language, "Ghosttown" is somewhat undone by contrived plot twists that minimize the series' core. Lupe, such a vibrant character in the first two books, seems strangely off-key here, likely because she is not directly involved in the story. No matter how often shamans and spirit omens are invoked, these devices fail to distract the reader from reaching the conclusion far earlier than it is delivered.
And so we come to the book's final scenes, which in part led Lambert's publisher to reject the novel in 1997 and caused her to quit writing for publication. Ironically, the supernatural elements deemed too outré for mystery circles 10 years ago now seem jarring for different reasons. As a result of the success of "Harry Potter," "The Lord of the Rings" films and the birth of the paranormal subgenre, readers have become accustomed to tripping the light fantastic early and often; Lambert, however, waited too long to incorporate the supernatural in her work. It is intriguing to wonder how the author, and "Ghosttown," might have fared in today's paranormal-laden environment.
But playing what-if is a dangerous exercise. "Ghosttown," as the title suggests, is something of a cipher: a book indicative of Lambert's talent and intent but also, like its winning heroine, unsure of where to go next. "To my right the moon played on the Pacific. To my left the lights of the valley stretching into Hollywood and on into downtown shimmered like stars in a bowl, their cold light pulsing in frozen gasps," read the final words. The metaphor is oddly prescient for Whitney, frozen in the late '90s, never allowed to mature and finally confront long-plaguing demons, and for Douglas Anne Munson, a troubled writer whose literary career ended too soon.
Sarah Weinman writes the Dark Passages column appearing monthly at latimes.com/books. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com.