Some Like It Cozy; Others Like It Rough

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Reviewed by Richard Lipez
Sunday, August 31, 2008

THE MERCEDES COFFIN By Faye Kellerman | Morrow. 367 pp. $25.95

Strictly speaking, Faye Kellerman's companionable Peter Decker mysteries are police procedurals. Decker heads an LAPD detective squad, and his crime-solving relies on the customary cop resources: forensic evidence, interviews, analyzing patterns, leads from snitches. Kellerman's Decker novels also fit into the "cozy" sub-genre. That's not because there's little or no violence in them -- in the new Decker mystery two people are shot execution-style and stuffed into the trunks of their own Mercedeses -- but because Decker and his wife, Rina Lazarus, are just so doggoned nice to be around for several hours. The Dutch have a good word, gezellig (pronounced geh-ZELL-ig, with a phlegmy "g" on either end), that means cozy, familiar, congenial, memorable. That's Kellerman.

In The Mercedes Coffin, Decker is especially appreciative of Rina's comforting distractions -- updates about the kiddos, planning a Shabbos menu -- for at work he's being nagged from all sides. He's in a turf squabble with two other police dicks, who refuse to see the connection between the murder of a widely loathed music producer and the killing 15 years earlier of a beloved high school guidance counselor. And the higher-ups are all over Decker because Genoa Greeves, a nerdy tech billionaire, intends to reward the LAPD with new computers, but only after the cold-case crime is reopened and solved.

Decker's discovery of multiple troubles in the high school icon's life -- his gambling-addict wife, for example, was making the rounds carnally with an entire rock band -- is reminiscent of the peeling away of layers in one of Ross Macdonald's crisp, dark Southern California family-pathology mysteries. Except, instead of a loner PI leading readers through the family mire, you have Decker, an exemplar of family decency and strength. You don't go to Kellerman for originality in style or plotting; in fact, this book reminded me of my Aunt Rae's tasty beef brisket. Aunt Rae confessed to me with a laugh in her 98th year that she prepared her popular brisket with packaged onion soup, and that in no way lessened the pleasure.

LEATHER MAIDEN By Joe R. Lansdale | Knopf. 287 pp. $23.95

Also entertaining, but the antithesis of cozy, is Joe R. Lansdale's latest superb redneck-noir job. Lansdale is both as humane and as tasteless as anybody writing crime fiction today. Reading him is like riding the best tilt-a-whirl you've ever been on while still keeping your lunch down.

Lansdale's colorfully foul-mouthed protagonist, Cason Statler, signed up for Afghanistan after 9/11 but was "snookered" into Iraq. Having made it back safely, Statler went to work reporting for a Houston newspaper, where he became a Pulitzer Prize nominee, only to be fired for sexual misadventures with the wrong women. Now he fetches up at the paper in Camp Rapture, his East Texas home town. He sulkily stalks his ex-girlfriend Gabby, who can't stand him, and becomes intrigued with the disappearance of a college coed who seduced, videotaped and blackmailed half the men in town, including Statler's mortified brother.

Grisly murders pile up, and eventually Statler is assisted in his inquiries by a violent sociopath named Booger. Booger runs a bar and shooting range in Hootie Hoot, Okla., and back in Iraq he was the kind of soldier "who gave the rest of us a bad name." When we first meet him, we know that, like Chekhov's gun on the mantelpiece that has to go off before the play is over, Booger will explode sooner or later.

Lansdale is a pleasingly unhinged down-home-style raconteur. He can write a line like this: "I kicked him pretty hard in the throat, and he rolled over holding his throat and making a noise like someone trying to swallow a couple of Ping-Pong balls." He can also endow a character named Jazzy, an abused and neglected 10-year-old girl, with heartbreaking tenderness. Lansdale is a fascinating original.

THE BLACK PATH By Asa Larsson, Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy | Delta. 384 pp. Paperback, $12

There's a striking early scene in The Black Path where a half-dressed Swede steps out of his ice-fishing hut to urinate, and a frigid squall suddenly blows the shelter far away in the blinding snow, leaving him in danger of freezing. Desperately, the man locates another hut, breaks into it and discovers the frozen corpse of a woman who has been tortured to death.

Asa Larsson is as deft at writing heart-stopping scenes like this one as she is at getting inside the heads of characters like government prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson. Herself once a victim of a hideous crime, Martinsson steeps herself in the investigation night and day, partly out of empathy for the victim, partly because she sees herself as "socially crippled and crazy" and fears having a social life again.

Unfortunately, Larsson's narrative meanders listlessly through a Swedish mining company's machinations, some in Europe, some in Africa, and doesn't gather a lot of steam. However, descriptions of a murderous children's army in Uganda stick in the memory long after Larsson's adult characters blur out. ยท

Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. "Death Vows" will be published in September.

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