by Bruce TierneyDecember, 2006
At long last, Joseph Wambaugh fans have cause for celebration, with the release of Hollywood Station, his first LAPD novel in years. As usual, his cops are something of a motley crew: a pair of surfers known to their compadres as Flotsam and Jetsam; a decorated veteran known simply as The Oracle; a wannabe actor who serves as police liaison for the film industry; and a pair of plucky female cops who utilize their not-inconsiderable charm to ensnare sexual predators on the streets of Tinseltown. Although there is a story to Hollywood Station (sort of), the action is really episodic, along the lines of television shows such as Hill Street Blues. There are lots of characters, and they change partners more often than square dancers, but individual storylines overlap and lead inevitably to the resolution of the book's one major crime. Wambaugh is in top writing form, crisp and irreverent, displaying superb plot development and quirky yet believable characterizations. The author spent many years as a police detective, and it certainly shows in his mastery of the day-to-day details of police work. A favorite of both critics and fans, Wambaugh is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America.
LIVING IN A NIGHTMARE
According to the back flap of Death Angel, Martha Powers is the author of 11 novels, including the psychological thriller Sunflower. Death Angel expands upon the theme of every parent's greatest nightmare, the kidnapping of a young child. One minute Jenny Warner is on her way home from school; the next minute, she is swept into a dark sedan for what will prove to be the final ride of her short life. Things go from awful to even worse when Jenny's father, Richard Warner, is singled out as the prime suspect in his daughter's death. Kate Warner, Richard's wife, finds that her friends and neighbors regard her with suspicion; she has virtually nowhere to turn for solace. Then her husband disappears, barely one step ahead of the police who believe they have gathered enough evidence to arrest him. It is up to Kate, with the help of a dedicated cop and one close friend, to unravel the mystery of her daughter's untimely death and her husband's disappearance. Thing is, neither of her able-bodied assistants may have Kate's best interests at heart. Good twists abound, and the taut plot development will keep the reader turning the pages long after bedtime. Death Angel is the first Martha Powers novel I have had the pleasure of reading; it will not be the last.
IN COLD BLOOD
Bleeding Hearts, the latest from Ian Rankin, is a bit of a departure for the best-selling author of the Inspector Rebus series. It is narrated by one Michael Weston, a paid assassin who suffers from hemophilia. American detective Leo Hoffer has been hot on Weston's tail for years, employed by a wealthy client whose daughter was collateral damage in one of Weston's assassinations. Weston receives his assignments (and his payments) anonymously, so when he accepts a commission to kill a well-known news reporter, nothing seems particularly amiss. Things quickly go haywire when the cops arrive on the scene scant moments after the shooting, leaving Weston in quite a bind. Realizing he's been set up, Weston sets out to find out who is responsible. His search takes him to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, where a quasi-religious organization operates, shall we say, at the edges of legality, funded in part by a highly classified government division of the National Security Council. Though there is no denying that Bleeding Hearts is a tense and well-plotted page-turner, it lacks a bit of the seriousness of Rankin's Rebus series (similar to Lawrence Block's Burglar series, as compared to his Scudder series; some may find this quite a good thing). The protagonist is well developed and believable, and the ancillary characters are topnotch, particularly the splendidly flawed Leo Hoffer. On the other hand, there are a couple of coincidences, necessary for plot advancement, that stretch the reader's belief. In sum, a solid B+ effort from a writer who typically delivers A+ work.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
This year's last Tip of the Icepick Award goes to veteran storyteller John Mortimer for his latest installment in the Rumpole series, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror. It seems that Rumpole has irritated one of his major clients, a small-time crime family which has contributed regularly and generously to the Rumpole coffers. Now, with no income from that once-steady source in sight, Rumpole takes the case of an imprisoned Pakistani doctor, sequestered without trial by virtue of England's version of the Patriot Act. It quickly becomes clear where Mortimer's (and Rumpole's) sympathies lie when it comes to abrogation of civil rights, so more conservative readers may want to approach Rumpole and the Reign of Terror with an open mind (or not at all). That said, liberal readers will find their sentiments echoed, and quite eloquently, I might add. Meanwhile, on the home front, Rumpole's wife Hilda (She Who Must Be Obeyed), has bought a computer and is merrily typing away in her spare bedroom, writing her memoirs as the wife of one of England's most renowned barristers. To make matters worse, there is a budding attraction between Hilda and a recently appointed judge who doubles as Rumpole's arch-nemesis. As is always the case with Rumpole novels, the writing is crisp and very English, laden with double-entendre and classic understatement. An undercurrent of good-natured humor (or should we say humour ) pervades every sentence. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series will find much of the same gentle attitudinousness in Rumpole as in Botswana detective Precious Ramotswe, and Mortimer's legions of devotees will flock to Rumpole's latest adventure. Mortimer is the author of countless Rumpole books and short story collections, as well as being a retired barrister, playwright, screenwriter (notably for Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited) and autobiographer.