It often seems that certain contemporary mystery writers own a city: Robert Parker owns Boston, J.

A. Jance owns Seattle, Robert Crais owns L.

A., and Sara Paretsky owns Chicago. By the same token, T. Jefferson Parker owns Orange County, California. Each of his seven previous novels, from the groundbreaking Laguna Heat to the recent Blue Hour displays his familiarity with and affinity for the sun-drenched communities of California's south coast. Parker's latest novel, Red Light, picks up where The Blue Hour left off, chronicling the life and times of Sheriff's Investigator Merci Rayborn.

It has been two years since the death of Merci's partner Tim Hess, her sometime lover and the father of her child. In the intervening months, Mercy has kept her nose to the grindstone at work, while still trying to find the time to be a good mother. She has only recently started keeping company with a member of the opposite sex, another sheriff, and the road has been somewhat rocky to say the least. When all of the clues in the murder of a young prostitute seem to point to her newfound sweetheart as the perpetrator, Merci is faced with the tough decision of telling what she knows, information which will further implicate her boyfriend, perhaps beyond any hope of extrication. The plot thickens as Merci realizes the details of a 30-year-old murder bear a striking similarity to her current case; to confound matters further, fingerprints found at the scene of the current crime appear to belong to someone who has been presumed dead for years.

The further Merci digs, the more she begins to believe the two cases are intertwined, and that the answers she seeks may in fact lie with some of the most highly placed individuals in the current law enforcement administration. Somehow she must make her case without alerting the powers-that-be to her strategy.

As in each of his previous books, Parker has given us a thoroughly human protagonist, flawed but ultimately moral. Merci Rayborn is among his best; as such, she has the distinction of being the only character that has appeared in more than one of his novels. Red Light, like its predecessors, is a book for reading in one sitting, so block out a long evening free of distractions; you won't want to put it down.

Bruce Tierney is a writer in Nashville.

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