Mayhem and mysterious misdeeds aren't always the work of murderers and madmen. Sometimes mutant microbes are to blame. These five novels feature criminal acts on land and sea.
Bring Back That Villain
The villain of the story, Zolanda Suade, seemed so promising that, once she was dead, I kept regretting that Steve Martini's The Attorney (Putnam, $25.95) wasn't. A single-minded feminist, Zolanda ran a sort of underground railroad for children kidnapped by their moms. She would spirit mother and child away, hide them, help them assume new identities. That's what I wanted to know more about.
Zolanda acted out of a personal tragedy: Her son was killed at age 4 while with her ex. But alas, Zolanda got shot and killed very early on, leaving us to deal with Jonah's apparent guilt and the ensuing trial, in which our hero, Paul Madriani, tries to get him off.
Who is Jonah? Well, that's the problem. Except for having won a honking big sum in the lottery, he and his wife are pretty bland. We never really get to know them well enough to care that their grandchild, Amanda, has been snatched from their custody by their daughter, Jessica, except in an abstract way. All we know is that Jessica is a druggie and ex-con. What kind of environment will Amanda find herself in?
Jonah's anger toward Zolanda, who helped Jessica take Amanda, seems justified, as do his threats against her. It's no surprise when he's accused of the murder and has no alibi. Motive? Well, there's the kidnapping itself, of course, but also a press release Zolanda planned to distribute accusing Jonah of child molestation with Amanda and incest with his daughter, Jessica. In other words, Martini supplies all the right data to make us care, hence fear, for the characters. He even adds a ticking clock: Even as Paul battles in court for Jonah, the old man's health begins to fail. It doesn't matter. The emotional engagement just isn't there. The working out of the plot becomes an intellectual exercise, purely.
Not that that isn't okay. There's a lot to be said for a tight plot where all of the elements dovetail at the end. And it isn't a plot without twists and turns, either. It's just that The Attorney is a cold read, and that, surely, is not what author Martini intends. The best scene in the book -- the only scene where my heart actually began to pound -- is one where a carful of killers chase Paul through the streets of San Diego in slow motion. The suspense here is excruciating, and heightened by the presence of various pedestrians unaware of their own and Paul's peril.
Mental Patients Running Amok
In Jonathan Kellerman's Monster (Random House, $25.95), when a young and beautiful shrink leaves a good post at a county hospital for a grim one at Starkweather State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and then is murdered, psychologist Alex Delaware wants to know why. The more he learns about Dr. Claire Argent, however, the more mysterious she becomes. There's her empty apartment, her friendless existence, her pronounced anomie. Meanwhile Ardis Peake, a mass murderer in whom she'd taken a special interest, gives cryptic clues that sound as though they might have been meant as predictions.
Argent's is not the first corpse found, either. Preceding her was Richard Dada, an actor whose body had been cut in two. Like Claire Argent, he'd been found stuffed into garbage bags in the trunk of his own car. Starkweather's pathetic inmates, all of whom have committed horrible crimes, are a creepy lot. Like characters from horror movies, they lurch around in the hospital corridors. Even though they're drugged to the gills, they are a palpable threat whenever Delaware and Milo, the police investigator with whom he works, roam the Starkweather halls in search of clues. Kellerman gets a lot of gore into his book obliquely, by recounting their histories. It's a sure-fire way of getting our fear quotient up. It also makes us even more aware of the deviant twist that Claire Argent's career path seems to have taken prior to her death.
Delaware researches Peake's past along with Argent's, using a phrase Claire Argent's mother keeps repeating to unearth the secret of Claire's interest in Peake. While manipulating a solid, multi-layered and unpredictable plot, Kellerman still manages to convey a real sense of loss and of waste when delineating his characters, be they grieving parents or aberrant mental patients.
Thwarting the FBI
In Rough Draft (St. Martin's, $24.95) James W. Hall displays an ability to create strong and engaging characters. Even the walk-ons in this book are great. Hannah Keller, a divorcee with a young son, Randall, is the story's focus. Her tale is set in motion by a hideous crime; years later the FBI is not above using her obsession with solving the crime to bait Hal, a notorious hitman.
But Hannah, an ex-cop turned novelist, is no pushover. She stands the FBI's plot on its end. Caught in the middle is Frank Sheffield, an unambitious FBI agent who is in love with her. We watch as they come closer and closer together, a cautious but admirable pair. At the same time, the love story between the hitman and Misty, a misfit with a motive, is as good. It's alternately funny and moving and scary -- not an easy combo for any writer, but Hall manages to pull it off. This is a thoroughly satisfying thriller, and even though I read it smack on the heels of two others, it stood out. Even the big action scenes are well-considered, pushed to the max. It isn't that they leave the realm of reality. No. Instead, Hall has taken what could be old hat and given it just enough of a twist to make it new.
And Hal's childhood memories! These push creepy to a new level.
It Came From Beneath the Sea
The change of pace from serial killers and drug thugs to a scientific premise was welcome, and the atmospheric details of Sea Change, by James Powlik (Delacorte, $24.95) are wonderful. I liked the open sea and the detail about the Pacific Northwest, and I liked, too, learning something about oceanography. At the same time, the book fails where it matters most: in the delineation of character and human relationships.
This is particularly true of the women -- Carol Nolan, who is hero Brock Garner's ex-wife; and Ellie Bridges, who becomes his new love. Because the main characters seem made of cardboard, the book's real theme -- the attack of minute marine creatures called dynoflagellates -- seems almost silly. Granted, that aspect of the plot is based on fact; and, granted, the cinematic elements are such that even I am looking forward to the movie. But if you don't believe in the people, you don't much care about their plight.
The book is also marred by the wholly anticlimactic response the characters have to learning the identity of the mastermind, the person who created this particular biological threat. We, the readers, are told early on, so we expect something to happen when the secret is revealed. But nope. What we get is the emotional equivalent of a shrug.
A Detective With a Past
Birdman, by Mo Hayder (Doubleday, $23.95), takes place in London, and despite the British diction and even the untranslated acronyms and slang, it's riveting. The atmosphere of the book is eerie and tense, and the crimes that Detective Jack Caffrey is called upon to solve rival those of Jack the Ripper. But even as he moves inexorably toward the solution, Caffrey has a lot of personal crosses to bear. In the present, he can't bring himself to break up with Veronica, though he doesn't love her. The fact that she's bearing up bravely under another attack of Hodgkin's disease doesn't help. Meanwhile, he's met an enigmatic artist, Rebecca, the Degas of the bar girls who are being murdered and mutilated in what seems a parody of plastic surgery.
The past weighs heavily upon Caffrey, too. He feels responsible for his brother Ewan's disappearance when they were children and, in fact, thinks he knows the culprit, a neighbor who is a pedophile. He and the man still live back to back, and they taunt each other mercilessly.
So much for Caffrey's life outside the police force. Officially, he is in better shape, or would be if incompetent co-workers didn't toss leads in the trash. Caffrey uses a combination of legwork and inspiration, the latter rendered believable by the author's deft rendering of his thought processes.
Above all, Birdman is a frightening book. Its details are horrifying, and in the last 50 pages, as the conclusion is acted out before us, we can scarcely breathe because of their cumulative effect. Mo Hayder draws the suspense out far longer than most writers would dare -- and masterfully. If I had to sum this book up in a single word, it would be WHEW!
Carolyn Banks's comic mystery "Mr. Right" was reissued this past year. She is currently writing an erotic thriller.