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Between the Lines: It's a Mystery
(April 2003)
By David Pitt

You can tell the spring/summer reading season is fast approaching: suddenly the bookstore shelves are filled with mysteries and thrillers by big-name writers. Here's a sampling. The King of Torts (Doubleday) is John Grisham's new legal thriller; it features a public defender whose run-of-the-mill case -- he's defending a young man accused of murder -- turns into something altogether different when he stumbles onto a conspiracy involving a major drug manufacturing company. Grisham, who's lately ventured into new territory (check out The Painted House, for example, or The Summons), sticks to his familiar format, here, and if you're a fan of his monster bestsellers like The Firm you'll be delighted. If you prefer his newer, more adventurous novels, on the other hand, you might be a tad disappointed.

Speaking of legal thrillers, here's Ties That Bind (HarperCollins), by Phillip Margolin. I've always said Margolin's a better writer than Grisham, and, even though Grisham's been getting a lot better lately, I'm not about to change my mind yet. Margolin brings back Amada Jaffe, the star of Wild Justice, in which Jaffe, a Portland (Oregon) attorney, came up against a cagey, seductive sociopath. Now Amanda, still recovering from the events in that novel, agrees to take on a case no one else wants. A man is accused of killing a United States senator; he claims he didn't do it, but he also claims he can prove the existence of a top-secret society -- one that uses murder as an initiation. Like Wild Justice, Ties That Bind is chock full of twists and turns, and I guarantee you'll have a good time.

In Iris Johansen's Dead Aim (Bantam), Alex Graham is a successful and respected photojournalist. When a dam breaks, threatening countless lives, she puts aside her camera and gets in there with the rescuers. She's not looking for adventure, not looking for a story, but she finds the greatest story of her career ... assuming she can stay alive long enough to tell it. Like Grisham's The King of Torts, Dead Aim pits a lone hero against a giant conspiracy; and, like Grisham, Johansen apparently decided that we'll be so riveted by the plot that we won't notice that most of the characters are rather weak, and that she too often relies on standard plot devices. It's a good novel, but not one of her more original offerings.

Stephen J. Cannell's Hollywood Tough (St. Martin's Press) is a new Shane Scully novel. For those of you unacquainted with ol' Shane, here's the skinny: Cannell introduced Scully, the tough, follow-the-rules-only -when-it-suits-him L.A. cop, in The Tin Collectors (2000); in The Viking Funeral, published in 2002, Scully was on leave from the LAPD, pending the results of a psych review; now, having exposed a gang of bad cops in that novel, he's back on the force, and rarin' to go. And what does he stumble onto? A plot by a mobster to seize control of Hollywood's unions. Set inside the world Cannell knows like the back of his hand (you do know he was a television writer and producer for a quarter-century, don't you?), the novel is hard-hitting and exciting ... kind of like Scully himself, as a matter of fact.

If you like hard-hitters, you'll also want to check out The Last Detective (Doubleday), an Elvis Cole novel by Robert Crais. We haven't seen Cole, the L.A. detective, in a little while, and it's good to have him back. This is a rather mote personal story than Cole's previous outings -- someone has kidnapped the 10-year-old son of Elvis's girlfriend, right out from under Elvis's nose -- and it fills in some of the gaps in Elvis's life ... his childhood, for instance, and his Vietnam experiences. Crais likes to try new things, and this entry in the Cole series is different from its predecessors: deeper, more emotional, while maintaining the raw edge we've come to expect from Crais.

Like Cannell and Crais, Jeffery Deaver has given us a new installment of a popular series: The Vanished Man (Simon & Schuster), the new novel featuring Lincoln Rhyme, the quadriplegic forensic investigator. This time out, Rhyme and his partner, Amelia Sachs, are up against a killer who uses magic tricks and illusions in the commission of his crimes. As usual, Rhyme is surly, impolite, and brilliant (we wouldn't have him any other way); and, as usual, Deaver springs a couple of totally-out-of-left-field surprises. Deaver's novels are consistently excellent, and Rhyme is consistently compelling.

Also consistently excellent is Donald E. Westlake. No matter whether the novel's a comedy or a straight mystery, the man always gives us delightful characters, a fresh and suspenseful plot, and plenty of entertainment value. In Money for Nothing (Mysterious Press), we meet Josh Redmont, who, for the past seven years, has been getting cheques, one every month, in the amount of $1,000. He doesn't know who's sending the cheques, or why ... but now, finally, he's about to find out. And oh boy doesn't he wish he could turn back the calendar and make that money just disappear. It would be foolish to say this is one of Westlake's best novels, since he's never written one that even approaches mediocrity, so I'll put it this way: if you're a fan, and I can't imagine why you wouldn't be, you'll want to stop doing whatever it is you're doing and go get this book immediately.

While you're out, you should also pick up Into the Inferno (Ballantine), by firefighter and novelist Earl Emerson. The story begins with a traffic accident: two trucks have plowed into each other. Firefighters clean up the mess ... but, six months down the road, they begin to exhibit strange behavior, and then to die. Narrated by Jim Swope, who's learned he has only a week to live before he, too, succumbs to the mysterious ailment, the book's like a Robin Cook novel, only well written and genuinely suspenseful. What has happened to Jim and his fellow firefighters? Can he discover what's killing them off, and find a cure? The mysterious- syndrome device been used dozens of times already, but never in quite this way. By giving it fresh characters and a fresh setting -- you'll note the absence of almost all the usual virus-on-the-loose trappings -- Emerson's found new things to do with this tired old gimmick. Great fun.
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