See How He Lands
Monday, February 27, 2006
By T. Jefferson Parker
Morrow. 323 pp. $24.95
T.Jefferson Parker's new novel gets off to an odd start.
A young San Diego policeman named Robbie Brownlaw rushes to rescue people on the sixth floor of a burning building. Instead, he encounters a huge, crazed arsonist who throws him out the window. Parker nicely details Brownlaw's thoughts on the way down -- denial, love for his wife and acceptance of death. Happily, an awning breaks his fall and he survives, but the trauma leaves him with synesthesia, a neurological condition that jumbles the senses. In Brownlaw's case, when people speak to him, he not only hears their words, he also sees their emotions emerge as colored shapes -- red squares, for example, show that the speaker lying. This, clearly, is a useful disorder for a policeman to have.
But is it useful for the novel? The rather bizarre spectacle of red squares and orange triangles (pity) flowing out of people's mouths shouldn't mislead readers about what lies ahead. Synesthesia aside, this is not an offbeat or gimmicky novel. Rather, it's a classic police procedural and a tough-minded portrait of big-city crime and corruption. By surviving his fall, Brownlaw becomes a hero, and by age 30, he's a homicide detective. He and McKenzie Cortez, his hard-edged female partner, catch the case of ex-cop Garrett Asplundh, who transferred to the city government's ethics authority, only to have someone blow his head off.
Brownlaw learns that a disgruntled call girl had given Asplundh secret films of herself and colleagues cavorting with police officials and politicians. That raises the likelihood that one of them killed the investigator, or had him killed, to avoid scandal. But Brownlaw must also consider the possibility that Asplundh was killed because of something in his complicated personal life.
Parker keeps us guessing who killed the man and why, but the novel's real strength lies in his fascination with how power is used and abused. He includes a couple of street-level thugs in his story, but mostly he's interested in the kind of criminals who wear expensive suits and run the city.
The novel shows endless conflicts between different orders of power -- political, police, economic, even the power of love and its twisted twin, sexual obsession. A call girl has the power to go public with her sex tapes, but easily enough she can be jailed or killed. Cops have power, but they too can be killed or intimidated. A New York financier can lower San Diego's bond rating -- a huge power over a city at the edge of bankruptcy -- but he's undercut by having been caught with his pants down.
If civic life is corrupt, personal lives are chaotic and sad. Brownlaw's wife leaves him. She's pretty, sexy and a nitwit, but he loves her desperately. We wonder until the final pages whether he'll win her back -- and why he should bother. Asplundh, the slain ex-cop, had suffered the accidental death of his 3-year-old daughter. It broke his heart, destroyed his marriage and may have had something to do with his murder. Parker re-creates the child's drowning and the parents' grief in excruciating detail. Other hearts are broken other ways. At a meeting of the San Diego Synesthesia Society, Brownlaw encounters a woman whose brother was kidnapped in Iraq and beheaded.
As always, Parker casts a cool eye on the lives of the ultra-rich. He has Brownlaw follow a madam to a gated community where her girls entertain prominent men in "a house the size of a multiplex theater." Nearby houses "faced the street and others faced one way or the other, like people trying to avoid eye contact . . . bashful mansions." When Brownlaw's partner dates a very rich man, the detective has "an unprovable feeling that he was taking advantage of her in some way but I couldn't say what it was." Lovers, cops, whores, politicians, everyone is fighting for power in "The Fallen," and Parker's title surely refers to more than one man's fall from a burning building.
This is Parker's 13th novel since "Laguna Heat" in 1985. He has never quite broken through to the national bestseller lists, but he has won two Edgar awards (for "Silent Joe" and "California Girl") and is highly respected by other writers and devoted fans of crime fiction. The writer he most resembles is Michael Connelly. Both were journalists in California who read their Hammett and Chandler and embarked on serious crime fiction. If there is a reason that Connelly has sold more books, beyond the sheer vagaries of the writing business, it's probably that from the outset he focused on developing Harry Bosch. Over a long series of novels, he has built Bosch into one of the great characters in American popular fiction.
Publishers love successful series and readers like them, too, but some novelists are wary. They fear repetition, a rut. Dennis Lehane, who abandoned a successful series to write "Mystic River," says, "Nobody ever said, 'My fifteenth book was my best.' " George Pelecanos, who wrote three series of three or four novels each, and then moved on, says that to be locked into a long series would be like going to a job he hated every day, "something I have been running away from my whole life." Parker has repeated a character a time or two, but for the most part he has opted for the freedom of stand-alones, a hard way to go in an era of series. But he writes with intelligence, style and sensitivity, and he belongs with people like Connelly and Pelecanos in the first rank of American crime novelists.