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L.A. CONFIDENTIAL

Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review

“You Only Die Twice” begins with a dead body washed up on a Miami beach and ends the American way, with a lawsuit filed on behalf of the little boy who spied it, seeking damages for post-traumatic stress disorder, mental anguish, psychiatric trauma and emotional distress because deceptive advertising had lured him and his family to Miami Beach for a vacation reeking of coconut-scented suntan oil. All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The notion is addlepated. It does seem, however, that happy New York families fry in the sun, then sue. Unhappy Floridians frolic around homicide. That’s Miami for you, and Edna Buchanan, a crime reporter there, knows everything about the seamy sides of sun-drenched paradise. So does her heroine and alter ego, Britt Montero, also a newspaper reporter up on high-profile murders and low-profile sleaze.

The well-groomed blond adrift in sun-dappled shallows is finally identified as Kaithlin Jordan, supposedly murdered 10 years before. A good murder can solve a bad marriage, as everybody knows. So Kaithlin’s rich husband, R.J. Jordan, spoiled son of moneyed locals, was convicted as her killer despite the lack of a victim’s body. He’ll walk from death row now, because she was murdered while he was in prison, but questions spring up like weeds. Had he been framed for murder? Did he, from jail, mastermind her more efficient extinction this time? Why did Kaithlin disappear, where had she been hiding, why after so long did she return to meet a real bad end, however pulchritudinous? Montero smells a juicy story, and she delivers columns fit for an exaggerated city “where colors are too vivid to be real, ugly is uglier, beautiful is breathtaking and passions run high.”

What, for her part, Buchanan delivers is a city story, a newsroom procedural, a chase for buried solutions and dangerous revelations among the twists and turns of family histories and of Montero’s turbulent private life. On the way, her half-Cuban heroine encounters protesting Cuban exiles waving signs and blocking traffic and wonders why they are not waving their signs and tying up traffic in Havana. She also delivers a baby in an elevator and goes on babbling about it even though it has nothing to do with the action. And she narrowly escapes death herself. Altogether a twisty, flurried yarn jam-packed with hot neon, torrid stories, much delving, digging and groping for news and for clues and plenty of vivid red herrings.

With Robert Andrews’ latest, “A Murder of Honor,” we move to Washington, D.C., where the Potomac flows as sullied as the city it serves: a lawyers’ lair, which may be why the country is doing well, sort of, and taxpayers do badly. It all begins with a drive-by shooting, one more, done at first sight for kicks: no probable cause, no witness, no reason to get particularly excited in a city with one of the nation’s highest homicide rates. Except that the victim is a priest and a well-known community activist, that The Washington Post features his slaying as its front-page lead, and that the mayor of Washington wants the case solved so he can declare victory and get on with the serious business of politics.

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So what starts out as a police procedural soon turns to politics--police politics, personal politics and media politics in which craftiness counts more than craft. Two seasoned homicide detectives, Frank Kearney and Jose Phelps, get the intractable case and, as they begin to dig, surprises explode like mines under their feet. Was Father O’Brien gay? Was Father O’Brien warped? Was he embezzling money or tied to opaque gangsters? Was there a purpose behind the senseless crime?

Lots of dope sloshes around, so does money in industrial quantities that turn into electronic transfers; and lots of graphic autopsies bring home the mangled gravy. A lot of people die--11 stiffs by the book’s midpoint, not counting mangled cars and the walking wounded. Meanwhile, the drug plague festers, infecting all it touches, and Kearney is distracted by a multimillion-dollar suit that a cop-killer whom a jury found not guilty has brought against the city, its police and him. Protecting the civil rights of murderers can be political too.

“A Murder of Honor” is crisp, astringent and not very cheerful. It is also resolutely not politically correct. Andrews throws in plenty of shifty characters and lots of stand-up guys and gals. But his main message is about the distance between principle and practice, between rhetoric and reality; about the dilapidation of trust between the public and its alleged representatives or defenders. The man and the woman in the street, he says, do not trust City Hall or cops or the clowns in Congress or liars in the White House, let alone on the screen. His title itself is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms: Don’t look for honor, even among thieves. In the end, yes, Kearney and Phelps get their villains. But we know that the world will continue to turn--askew--and that the jackassery will continue. Politicians will go on doing what they do best: posture and plunder; and the police will continue to do what they’re supposed to do but aren’t always allowed to do: their job.

Giles Blunt’s “Forty Words for Sorrow” is the most horrifying horror story since “The Silence of the Lambs,” the more so because so many of its characters are fully dimensional, credible and ordinary even in their anomalousness. There’s a good cop and there’s a bent cop; there are villains who range from average to exorbitant; there are police officers who do their job and civilians trying to get on with their lives. The author is Canadian, and the riveting tale he tells takes place in the bitterly cold winter of remote northern Ontario, where snowbound Algonquin Bay gets dark at 4 o’clock, water pipes freeze, car windows frost up, road surfaces are either sloshy or slippery, winterized homes call for long underwear despite triple-glazed windows, overworked fireplaces and woodstoves going full blast. This is where missing kids begin to turn up, mutilated, tortured, murdered; and where the good cop, life and wife out of joint, and his new partner, a French-Canadian woman officer, struggle to find the cruel butcher(s?) before another life ends up in ice.

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As you read, you will find that, being Canadian, cops, non-cops and even petty criminals are more civil than folks south of the border, more reassuring and better-spoken. But strains loom as dark as the northern skies, while tacks and veerings keep one guessing. The plot is satanic, the tension relentless and so are the monstrous killers. Some cultures believe that hell is cold. Blunt’s marriage of fire and ice opens new abysses into the here and now. *


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