THE LAST KING

By Nichelle D. Tramble

Ballantine/Strivers Row. 309 pp. Paperback, $13.95 Great crime protagonists all have at least one thing in common: They are pure products of their gritty environments. There's a palpable sense of place in Sam Spade's San Francisco, Philip Marlowe's L.A. and the Detroit populated by the laconic bottom-feeders in Elmore Leonard's books; you sense it both in what their narrators say and what they don't. They live here, and we find ourselves trusting their native sense of what's up and who's down almost from page one.

Nichelle D. Tramble's Maceo Redfield is a different case. He has a great territory -- the drug-infested 1989 battleground of Oakland, Calif. -- but he's an earnest and awkward tour guide.

When Tramble first introduced readers to Maceo in her 2001 debut, The Dying Ground, she staked out his terrain as a place where good and evil are very much a matter of scale. Maceo, whose parents are both dead, has been raised by his loving and responsible grandfather, Daddy Al, who hasn't been above committing murder himself. Maceo's lifelong best friends are Billy and Holly, both dope dealers. Holly was also raised by Daddy Al, and he and Maceo consider themselves brothers, even though they have taken very different paths. A former high school baseball star, Maceo finds himself sucked into the city's ongoing drug battle when he returns home on a break from UC-Berkeley to find Billy dead and Billy's girlfriend, Felicia, suspiciously on the lam. Maceo and Holly go on a hunt for Felicia that will end in a blaze of gunfire and then an actual blaze to burn the bodies.

For all the blood and brutality, The Dying Ground talks a lot tougher than it actually is. Maceo's insights about life in this hard land are milky and banal, and you never get the feeling he's walked the mean streets Tramble keeps shoving him down.

Maceo's back for the sequel, The Last King, and although he's acquired a scar, a big dog and a smoking habit, I'm afraid he hasn't changed a bit. The plot, involving an unsolved death and a missing suspect, looks a little familiar as well.

It is two years later. Maceo and Felicia have gone their separate ways, although everyone in town seems to think they went off together. Holly has stayed put, expanding his domain by taking over the late Billy's drug turf. Maceo, who has been rambling around the country trying to forget everything that happened to him, returns to Oakland after learning that Holly is in trouble. A woman has been found bludgeoned to death in the hotel room of an NBA superstar named Cotton Knox, another orphan of the storm raised by Daddy Al (who sometimes seems to have raised half of Oakland); Holly is suspected and has gone into hiding.

As Maceo tries to find Holly, he learns that the dead woman was part of a stable of high-rolling call girls operated by a thug named Dutch, who is apparently looking to avenge the death of his cousin Smokey, a fat drug lord whom we last saw when Felicia blew his head off in the last pages of the previous book. Maceo's search for the truth about the woman's death takes him into the pampered world of Cotton, his supposedly long-suffering wife, Allaina, and their hangers-on. His romantic interest along the way is supplied by Sonia "Sonny" Boston, a femme who may or may not be fatale.

Tramble writes with a seriousness of mind and heart, and she convincingly renders the mixture of these high and low worlds, sports celebrity and the drug trade, in a story that involves both blackmail and the bonds of friendship. There's no juice or vitality to it, however; Maceo is as much a stiff as always, and his occasional tendency to serve as a mouthpiece for Tramble's liberal pieties only compounds the problem. "The kids left behind by the absence of resources flowed into the streets and turned Oakland into a devil's playground," he moans. "Who knew from The Cosby Show that we were in distress?"

Maceo is also entirely too quick with portentous, melodramatic lectures on the human toll of drugs and the collective guilt of all those involved: "We'd contributed through blindness, bullets, and greed to the circus act of Oakland crimes, and even if we tendered our payment in flesh and blood it would never be enough." The story is clotted with lumpy sociological commentary, stiffly journalistic observations and a plethora of annoying moments that tell more than they show.

Everything Maceo says about the city where he has lived his entire life sounds as new to him as it does to us; there's nothing offhand, casual or convincing about him. He's just the kind of narrator, in other words, who stands in the way of our enjoying what should be a fast, sweaty, heart-pounding read. *

Rodney Welch reviews books for the Columbia, S.C. Free-Times and other newspapers.