Mysteries Roundup

Mysteries Roundup: Trouble in Storyville

(Frances Benjamin Johnston/library Of Congress Prints And Photographs Division)
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By Kevin Allman
Sunday, February 1, 2009

New York, Los Angeles, Washington, New Orleans: They're all well-trodden settings for mysteries and thrillers, and some familiar authors are back to let their gumshoes snoop the streets and find new adventures.

LOST RIVER By David Fulmer | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 317 pp. $25

In the early part of the 20th century, New Orleans aimed to control vice by restricting it to the district called Storyville, which is often presented in contemporary fiction as a Western frontier town in the middle of a French-inflected city -- albeit a frontier town with superior food, music and women. David Fulmer's Lost River is the latest in his series of yarns about Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr, right-hand man to Tom Anderson, "the mayor of Storyville." But now St. Cyr has retired from the Storyville game and is leading a more satisfying (if not wholesome) life working as a P.I. for Uptown bankers. He's found more happiness with Justine, a former whore gone good, and the two have given up the "jass" clubs and party cribs of Storyville for a more sedate life in the city's Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.

Meanwhile, trouble roils in Storyville: Tom Anderson fears he's losing his grip over the district, and dead bodies begin turning up: not the usual brawling sailors or dope addicts but "respectable" Uptown men who take their discreet pleasures in Storyville's better brothels. The victims seem to have no connection other than Honore Jacob, the man who owns the sporting houses where they're found. Jacob, an absentee landlord, can't figure out what's going on, and neither can Anderson. Against his better instincts, St. Cyr is pressed back into duty, a decision that affects not only his "respectable" job but also his relationship with Justine, who's being wooed by a mysterious man.

Fulmer is both a fine plotter and a marvelously evocative writer with an eye for character. Along the way, he drops the names of real-life historical figures like Anderson, Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton. One of his best creations in Lost River is Evelyne Dallencort, a bored Uptown socialite who dons shabby clothes and walks the streets of Storyville to get a vicarious thrill and a secret peek into the district's "bizarre economy of sin." Like all Fulmer's characters, Evelyne finds what she's looking for and more, in itself a very New Orleanian concept.

BORN TO RUN By James Grippando | Harper. 328 pp. $25.99

A veep with a bum ticker, a mishap on a hunting trip: It's a familiar setup, but in James Grippando's Born to Run, it takes on Carl Hiaasen-esque proportions. Vice President Phillip Grayson, on a hunting trip in the Everglades, falls out of a boat and ends up being alligator chow. When the president taps retired Florida governor Harry Swyteck to fill out the term, the governor's son, brash lawyer Jack Swyteck, ends up going to Washington to serve as his father's aide-de-camp.

The younger Swyteck gets embroiled in Beltway intrigue when the late vice-president's wife confides that she thinks her husband was murdered, and pretty soon Chloe Sparks, a tabloid reporter who's also on the case, turns up dead as well. Then Chloe's sister, a CNN reporter, gets hold of Chloe's notes and discovers that her little sister had a story that, as Grippando puts it, "would rock the White House to its political core"

In other words, not a single situation or a single word of Born to Run bears the faintest relation to reality, or even a TV-movie, but Grippando spins a fun 200-proof yarn, with dialogue that's heavy on the testosterone (and a plotline that includes death by erectile dysfunction medication). Swyteck is a hero whose tastes run to fine tequila, fast cars and faster women, and his nemeses have names like Demetri, Vladimir and "the Greek." By the time Swyteck is being held hostage live on Miami television as the president watches on Air Force One, you'll either be hooked, or you'll have long ago set aside Born to Run and picked up the in-flight magazine.

SPIDER SEASON By John Morgan Wilson | St. Martin's Minotaur. 296 pp. $24.95

In John Morgan Wilson's Spider Season, the eighth installment of his series about a disgraced former reporter, Benjamin Justice has finally written the memoir that details his fall from investigative grace and why he had to return his Pulitzer Prize. On his book tour, no one is interested, but back home in Los Angeles, the publication results in a more complicated problem: A failed actor turned stalker is sending Justice deranged, threatening postcards. Then there's a mysterious young skinhead biker who keeps appearing wherever Justice goes.

Spider Season is a typically moody outing for Wilson's self-destructive sleuth, but it's by far the weakest of the Justice books, with a pasteboard plot and characters who defy logic. The identity of the skinhead is telegraphed from the start, and the stalker is so goonily unhinged that the story becomes preposterous when, instead of getting a restraining order or a bodyguard, Justice goes to meet the nutter instead. More trouble comes from an investigative reporter who's doing a hatchet-job profile of Justice; Wilson has created such a one-dimensional, spiteful viper that it's hard to imagine anyone sitting for interviews with her, but Justice does, several times, only because the plot requires it. And longtime series sidekick Alexandra Templeton, a reporter friend of Justice's, is largely absent from the tale, only to resurface at the end of the story, inexplicably transformed into a bourgeois bridezilla marrying a jerk.

Most unsavory of all is Justice's casual reaction to the murder of a major character in the series, a death for which the sleuth himself is at least partially responsible; Justice seems more concerned with his own crush on a new boyfriend, a handsome ex-priest. In the last chapter, Justice is driving away with the priest, literally into the sunrise . . . when only a few chapters earlier, he almost raped the man in a thoroughly extraneous, incredibly unpleasant scene. Wilson, an Edgar Award winner, has spun far better webs; this career nadir is little more than an exercise in sadism toward his characters -- and his readers.

LETHAL LEGACY By Linda Fairstein | Doubleday. 372 pp. $26

In Lethal Legacy, New York assistant D.A. and sex-crimes prosecutor Alexandra Cooper answers a call about Tina Barr, a rare-books restorer who resists the police's help in her rape case. Soon Barr is dead, and so is another woman, a maid who happened to be dressed in the clothes of her employer, Minerva Hunt. All investigative roads seem to lead back to the Hunts, a very wealthy, unpleasant and competitive family of possibly criminal bibliophiles, who seem to own more of Manhattan than the Astors and the Vanderbilts put together.

What makes Lethal Legacy one of Linda Fairstein's stronger offerings is the intriguing setting: the catacombs beneath the New York Public Library. It also helps that the author downplays the unrealistic girlie-girl aspects of Cooper's life (the "Sex and the City" wardrobe, the French gourmet-chef lover) in favor of a heightened focus on the mystery and its mix of high society, rare maps, library crimes and literary restoration. Fairstein presents the latter, interestingly and in great detail, as just another form of forensic science.

Fans of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" will find this a familiar formula (Fairstein has been a consultant for the show), but the author's squeaky-clean approach to procedurals (no gore, no swearing, no explicit detail) gives the Cooper series a proper, sedate feel that's closer to "Murder, She Wrote." That seems to be just the recipe craved by Fairstein's many fans, and for them (and perhaps them only), the author also serves up plenty of platonic beefcake in the form of Detective Mike Chapman, Cooper's eternal sidekick, who is as handsome and unrealistic as ever -- and ever ready to rescue the woman he calls "Blondie" from whatever hairbreadth scrape she gets into. ยท

Kevin Allman is a frequent mystery reviewer.

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