To paraphrase Winston Churchill: This pudding has a theme, madam! In each of these four mystery novels, the main pair of characters, be they protagonist-antagonist, partners, or simply a random duet, are most definitely opposites. The result is several good reads, especially if you're not expecting, as you fly through the air or fry on the ground, Dostoyevsky.
In Redemption (Harcourt Brace, $24), Howard Fast's 40th-something book and his first suspense novel, the he/she opposites who attract are quite different. "He" is 78-year-old recent widower Ike Goldman, professor emeritus of contract law at Columbia Law School; and "she" is fortyish Elizabeth Hopper, the almost ex-wife of an abusive Wall Street, Master of the Universe type.
Late one night, driving across the George Washington Bridge, he sees her about to jump, and saves her life by talking her down. Ike rekindles the spark of her will to live, thereby giving himself new will to live, and they're smack in the midst of a lovely May-December dilemma when her bad guy ex-husband turns up dead. And guess whose gun did the deed? I like Ike's, say the police.
Of course the case becomes a media magnet, and of course Ike stands by his (wo)man. But things get dicey as the likelihood of his taking the stand looms large. Will the law professor tell the truth under oath? Don't touch that dial.
Howard Fast is an accomplished storyteller (Spartacus, Citizen Tom Paine) who makes you think about the larger questions. But is this tale plausible? Well, almost. The publisher tells us this book is a monument to the memory of his late wife, as well as being based on "the experience of his daughter, happily married to a man thirty years her senior." I wish the publisher hadn't.
In Guilty Knowledge (Forge, $23.95), E. Howard Hunt's latest novel, it's a male tax lawyer with the heart of an ace detective on one side of the equation and a female U.S. senator with presidential ambitions on the other, and the prolific Hunt makes you wonder from page one if these two very attractive opposites have a real shot at happiness.
The main problem is that people keep turning up dead. Hunt's definitely a retro writer. There are corpses all over the place, and the main characters both smoke and drink. Boy, do they drink -- page 23: "I left my desk and went to the corner cellarette. From it I took two small snifters and added Hine cognac to each"; page 25: "I uncorked a bottle of Solera Antigua and filled a thimble glass"; page 26: ". . .to ward off the morning chill, I stopped at a sidewalk bistro and had steaming coffee laced with rum. The Barbados brand . . ."; and then, after a one-page dry spell, page 28: "`Are we drinking?' `I hope so.' `Then please do the honors.' She gestured at a wet bar in the room's far corner. `This time of day I usually favor a mart. You?'"
With all that drinking, not to mention the lovemaking, you wouldn't think that Steve Bentley, Esq., would have the energy to save the gorgeous Sen. Alison Bowman, but he's called upon to do so repeatedly, and he never disappoints. Bentley has to solve crimes, find blackmailers and their killers, and dispose of bodies before the police arrive, all the while keeping all of this from the senator, hence the guilty knowledge of the title. By the book's end, Bentley resembles Travis McGee with a law degree.
Hunt handles dialogue well, moves the action even better, and provides a good bit of verisimilitude. Sometimes a bit too much. For example: "Her ample breasts were firm, her loins velvet-soft, and her buns unyielding." Is that a compliment?
It's also fun for Washington readers to see how well, or ill, he captures our town and its environs. My favorite quibble: Sen. Bowman, who's filthy rich as well as a stunner, lives in an apartment building "off Connecticut Avenue by Belmont Road, just short of Taft Bridge." Well, that's exactly where I live, and in the better part of a decade I haven't seen a single senator there, not to mention a member of Congress (at least not on the east side of Connecticut).
Homer H. Hickam Jr.'s Back to the Moon (Delacorte, $23.95) is as interesting as his life, which is saying something. Born a coal miner's son in West Virginia, as a boy he preferred looking up. His love for space led him to an engineering degree, and a career that included the military and NASA, a journey he wrote about so compellingly in his 1998 memoir, Rocket Boys, which became the movie "October Sky." In Back to the Moon, his first novel, Hickam returns to his first love, space travel in general and moon flights in particular.
It's 2002, 30 years after the last moon flight. Maverick ex-astronaut Jack Medaris hooks up with a group of disaffected scientists who believe that the answer to the world's future energy needs is helium-3, an isotope found only on the surface of the moon. But the liberal U.S. president and his ultra-liberal vice president aren't interested, so Medaris and his team of fellow Moon-mad scientists plot to get the helium-3 by hijacking the space shuttle Columbia, which is to make one last routine orbital flight, and trying to fly it to the moon. A very mixed bag of foes tries mightily to stop him.
Only after he's left the crew on terra firma and blasted off toward space does he discover that he has a stowaway. The (of course) beautiful Dr. Penny High Eagle, celebrity author and natural scientist, who finagled her way aboard at the last minute, ostensibly to conduct scientific experiments, had already been strapped in when he hot-wired the Columbia. High Eagle and Medaris are this book's pair of opposites who attract.
Reading Back to the Moon is like playing a video game. Danger keeps zapping at you from all sides at top-gun speed. The action, plus the Hickam's wonderful mix of high-tech jargon and acronyms, is nonstop. Despite a "spacey" sex scene, it all adds up to a great adventure yarn. And a lot of fun.
Kill Me First (HarperCollins, $24), Kate Morgenroth's debut novel, is the most literary of this mysterious quartet. The book surprises with the frequency of its nicely turned phrases, many of which invoke a fittingly noir-ish mood. It also features the weirdest pair of main characters. Merec is by inclination, avocation, profession and nature, a killer. That's what he does; he kills people for money and sometimes not even for that. His modus operandi is to recruit a small group of fellow killers, and then when the job is done snuff them too.
Sarah Shepherd is Merec's polar opposite. Recuperating from an auto accident, she has the supreme bad luck to end up at a nursing home that happens to be the site of Merec's next "job." Merec adds the fiftyish Sarah to the group of elderly residents he plans to kill. Then he proceeds to play his favorite game: He asks one person of a pair to choose which one he should shoot to death. All of them point elsewhere, and all of them get shot anyway, but when Merec is down to the last living pair, Sarah astounds him by saying, "Kill me." Instead, he kidnaps her.
Compounding the horror of what has transpired is the fact that Merec's "assistant" has videotaped the massacre. Merec leaves the tape behind, for the media to discover, knowing that no television executive will be able to resist putting the whole "show" on the air, the horrific murders and Sarah Shepherd's heroism. It's like watching the Simpson murder, not just the trial. Soon the entire nation is transfixed by Sarah, her story and her plight.
Kate Morgenroth, who studied under Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, and John McPhee, is a writer to watch.
John Greenya writes frequently about true crime and the law.