Friday, February 20, 2015

Murder and Mayhem

Faye Kellerman's 22nd Decker/Lazarus mystery opens with former LAPD detective Peter Decker now on board in an upstate New York small-town department. He and wife Rina Lazarus have moved east to be closer to their extended families as well as their grown children and grandchildren. Rina's adapted well, but the slow pace of small-town police work is not energizing Decker. His partner, an abrasive young man of wealth, doesn't help much. So when a cemetery break-in leads the pair to a theft of Tiffany glass art panels, and from there to the murder of an art student, Decker is more than ready to dive into the case in Murder 101.

As is customary with Faye Kellerman's books, the story has a large role for family connections, among the detectives as well as the suspects. She weaves the dynamics of different family relationships into the interrogations, theorizing and investigations the detectives must do, and has Decker reassemble some of his LAPD "family" as well for the sleuthing. The solution will burrow deep into the world of high-dollar art theft, heirlooms and items stolen from Jewish families during WWII and organized crime.

Murder 101 is pretty much straightforward procedural with the usual flavor of family interplay and details of Orthodox Jewish life. Kellerman has been doing this for many years, but because she still does it well and continues to cover new ground even in familiar territory, it's worth the effort to follow the Deckers from Los Angeles to Greenbury, NY.
Before Clive Cussler and his "co-authors" worked themselves into a several-books-a-year publishing schedule, as much as three years would elapse between the adventures of National Underwater and Marine Agency scientist, adventurer and Square-Jawed Hero Dirk Pitt. So although Night Probe came out eight years after Pitt debuted, it's only the fifth Pitt adventure and we can see Cussler still working on his storytelling groove.

Set in 1989, seven years after the publication date, we find a United States on the verge of economic collapse because of the depletion of Middle Eastern oil supplies and the lack of native-generated alternatives. Almost a quarter of the nation depends on power generated by a massive Canadian hydroelectric plant, but Canada faces the possibility of Quebec seceding from the nation and causing the kind of chaos a precariously-balanced situation doesn't need.

Into the mix comes US Navy officer and researcher Heidi Milligan, who has found evidence of a mysterious U.S.- Great Britain "North American Treaty" from 1914 that seems to have disappeared from all public record. Milligan's work brings the treaty to the notice of the president, who directs NUMA and Pitt to locate copies believed to have sunk in the St. Lawrence River after a horrific train accident in 1914. Great Britain, on the other hand, would rather the treaty stay buried and so recalls retired agent Brian Shaw to learn what Milligan knows and stop the recovery.

There's quite a bit of skullduggery amongst the various parties of Quebecois separatists, high-level domestic intrigue and bed-hopping, British military secret missions and et cetera and et cetera. Cussler wildly overplots the story and overindulges himself with characters, villainy and geopolitical gamesmanship and commentary that he's not particularly equipped to handle -- one notes the fact that Middle Eastern oil reserves did not run out in the early 1990s, for example.

It would be a few books later before Cussler took his strengths -- action scenes, underwater exploration and maritime and oceanographic expertise and straight-ahead, no-frills talespinning -- and drilled down to keep them in the forefront of the Pitt adventures. Night Probe shows a number of those already present, but mires them in way too much et cetera to rank much above middling in the series.

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