LIE TO ME
By David Martin
Random House. 269 pp. $18.95
A BURNED-OUT cop reluctantly dusts off his badge for one last case, the pursuit of a psychokiller: We've seen that before.
What we haven't seen is the clever conceit that coils and twists like a snake through the plot of David Martin's fifth novel, Lie to Me. No one can lie to Det. Teddy Camel, the former shining star of an unnamed Virginia suburban police department a few minutes drive outside the District. Camel's unusual ability to detect the truth in suspects' halting pauses, shifting eyes and guarded words earned him the nickname of the Lie Detector when he was the department's hot-dog cop.
But the same gift, Camel thinks, spoiled his marriage, estranged him from his daughter and grandson, made life unliveable with his post-marital girlfriend and ultimately drove him to drink. Now Camel is an alcoholic wreck, alternatively punching the clock and hitting the bottle until he reaches retirement age.
By adding an element of classical tragedy -- the ambivalence of a divine gift -- author Martin gives the otherwise familiar cliches in Lie to Me a glimmer of originality, especially when he demonstrates that Camel's truth-seeking obsession leads him to employ brutal, psychologically punishing techniques.
When Camel is coerced into questioning a young bimbo who witnessed her husband's gory, self-mutilating suicide, he suddenly isn't sure of his abilities. Oh, he knows Mary, the May-September trophy bride of wealthy real estate developer Jonathan Gaetan, is hiding something. But should he pursue it at this stage of his career? Mary reminds him of his estranged daughter but, from the way Camel's eyes linger on her body, we know that more than a paternal urge makes Camel lie to his captain about the woman's innocence.
After a lot of waffling, and a little breathy persuasion from the dead man's jealous, sexpot secretary, Camel takes up the challenge. But what jump-starts this skillfully written police procedural and keeps the engine racing until the end is not Camel's clumsy discovery of the Gaetan family's pathology, but the ghoulish, gross-out repulsiveness of the villain. We're hooked when we meet him on the first page, sitting childlike in the woods, clinging to the hand of one of his victims. We want this guy to get it, and get it bad.
It's not just that this wacko has sexual kinks or likes to hack up his victims -- we've seen that before. He also paints his victims' faces with red lipstick before doing them in. To make things even more disgusting, his body is marked with suppurating wounds that become noxiously fragrant in the D.C. heat. Yeeeccch!
The villain is so disgusting and, in one wonderful inversion, comically inept, that he runs away with what Martin intended to be a suspenseful examination of the uses and abuses of lies. Teddy Camel's discoveries about the killer and his victim don't lead him to the revelation the story demands: that anyone who thinks he can't be lied to is himself a liar.
MARTIN follows a deliciously harrowing climax with an overly long denouement in which he tries too hard to make the novel's femme fatale a sympathetic character. This, and Martin's heavy-handed depiction of the book's female characters as victims or victimizers -- something too common in the mystery genre -- weakens his simplistic conclusion: that too much truth is just as bad as too little.
But Lie to Me remains a rip-roaring read, a novel that grabs you from the first sentence and, like the best horror tale, becomes both compelling and terrifying, daring you to rush to the end. The cliches are forgiveable, the writing sprightly and clean, the violence related with terrifying subtlety and immediacy. We'll need another psychokiller crime novelist, Thomas Harris perhaps, to deliver the ultimate meditation on the truthseeker's agony. Until then, give David Martin credit for taking the genre in an interesting direction, with satisfying suspense and a dark, ghoulish glee.
Bill Kent is at work on the sequel to his crime novel, "Under the Boardwalk."