Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Three Reads

Although T. Jefferson Parker works primarily in the detective and criminal suspense genre, he's always had a bit of a literary bent and a tendency to insert the sort of "extras" that those kinds of novels like to use as prybars for opening up the human condition for their commentary. In 2006's The Fallen, that quirk is the synesthesia that affects San Diego police officer Robbie Brownlow.

Robbie was thrown from a sixth floor window but survived his injuries. The experience has colored his view of the world and also scrambled some of his senses: Sometimes when people talk he can see colored shapes that indicate the emotions behind their words. It's not constant but it sometimes lets him know when people are lying to him, which comes in handy when he's talking to people about crimes that may connect to them.

Robbie and his partner, the aggressive McKenzie Cortez, have found a body in a Jeep -- a former police investigator named Garrett Asplundh who's crossed over to investigating potential wrongdoing by police or other public officials. A tragedy in Asplundh's past suggests he may have taken his own life, but the clues don't add up that way and Asplundh was apparently on the trail of high-level corruption that people probably would have been ready to take drastic steps to stop. Since finding out the truth about the victim's death might expose that same corruption, Robbie and McKenzie could be in the same crosshairs.

Parker wisely doesn't overuse Robbie's synesthesia by making him some kind of telepathic human lie detector who instantly sees the truth behind lies. He can only "see" what his other senses suggest to him, so even if he believes someone's deceiving him he doesn't know about what or what the real story might be. The restraint allows the procedural aspects of Fallen to unwind at a steady pace, although Parker does throw a personal crisis or two for Robbie that doesn't seem to have a place in a standalone novel. He may have thought about more than one book with these characters but if so decided against it, so those threads are left dangling. Fallen is still a solid effort, with a slick story, engaging characters and Parker's trademark mix of laconic narration and vivid description.
Clay Edison usually winds up on the scene of a crime after it happens -- he works for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office as a coroner. But his investigative instincts keep him on the hunt when he meets up with a mystery, even if his superiors try to keep him focused on the more everyday aspects of his job. In A Measure of Darkness, his second outing, the father-and-son team of Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman give Clay a puzzle in the midst of a tragedy.

A non-scheduled house party is the scene of a shooting that leaves several people dead and wounded. Clay is called to the scene and finds another body -- a young woman who was strangled instead of shot and was nowhere near the gunfire. Before he can figure out what happened to her he has to figure out who she is, and that's going to be a tough task in and of itself. Clay's only given a limited time to probe the case before handing it off to regular investigators, and when the leads he develops only wind up posing more questions his leash -- and the amount of time he has to find justice for this victim -- grows significantly shorter.

Kellerman the elder has been writing the Alex Delaware novels for the last thirty years and so knows his way around a police procedural. Kellerman the younger has a handle on the mindset more in line with someone Clay's age and has shown a somewhat defter hand at exploring the interior dimensions of a character. Although she's not credited here, Kellerman matriarch Faye has been the clan's best hand at adding the dimension of family life to a story and may have been a behind-the-scenes influence on the novel, since the presence of Clay's recently-released-from-prison brother plays a big role in the story, as does his own developing relationship.

Measure offers a cameo from Kellerman the elder's Delaware but doesn't otherwise reference earlier work from either man. The Clay Edison novels seem significantly more promising than the pair's supernaturally-tinged "Golem" series, so we can hope they stay on this path and leave the other behind for awhile.
Although detective fiction writer David Housewright is far better known for his Rushmore McKenzie novels, he began with a more traditional private investigator named Holland Taylor in 1995. Taylor appeared in three novels, finishing with 1999's Dearly Departed, before Housewright switched to McKenzie. He returned to Holland Taylor's Minneapolis to check in with the former police officer just this year, in Darkness, Sing Me a Song.

Housewright doesn't move Taylor ahead the full 19 years since his last outing but does let some time pass. Taylor's relationship with lawyer Cynthia Grey has collapsed, but he's entered a partnership with former rival investigator "Freddie" Fredericks. The pair have been hired by attorney David Helin to find evidence that will clear Eleanor Barrington of killing her son Joel's girlfriend, Emily Denys. The problem is that most of the evidence they can find suggests Eleanor probably did it and against it they have only Eleanor's word she didn't. Since Eleanor is an exceptionally unpleasant woman with an unhealthy relationship to her son, the weight seems to be pretty heavily on one side.

As Taylor digs more and more into the everybody-loved-her Emily, he finds she lacks much history at all. His attempts to see who she really was lead him to a small town torn by new, environmentally invasive industry that seems at first to have nothing to do with Joel or Emily, even though the Barringtons own land in the area. But some corporate weasels, a paranoid militia group and a suspiciously similar murder draw his attention, and make the entire matter significantly more dangerous than it was when it started.

Taylor is quick-witted and Housewright makes him and a number of his castmates quite funny, with the Taylor-Freddie repartee standing out especially. The narrative wanders a little too much and keeps Taylor on site at the scene of the earlier murder longer than it really ought to. Even though the trigger-puller seems pretty obvious just about halfway through, Housewright keeps trying to throw in more spins to keep readers interested. That tendency affected the earlier trilogy as well. Like an over-reaching gymnast whose stretch for one more twist keeps her from sticking the landing, Housewright could never resist the extra swerve even though it caused an unbalanced story. Likeable characters made those three books work (or didn't; one of the reasons Practice to Deceive fails so completely is that Taylor is such a horse's ass in it).

Holland Taylor is a character who's fun to spend time with but who can become a trial when his creator doesn't make that likeability a strength or keep his eye on the ball in telling a story. A fifth Taylor novel is due in January, and the odd numbers have so far served him better than even ones, so we shall see.

No comments: