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Mystery steeped in seamier side of life

Times Staff Writer

FOR those who love mysteries, and only wish that American crime writer Patricia Cornwell had a dirtier mind, “Above Suspicion” is their book. With the book’s American release, Lynda La Plante, the British author of the “Prime Suspect” novels, is back with more bondage, buggery and blasphemy.

La Plante doesn’t simply murder a series of prostitutes here but has them trussed by their underwear, raped, sodomized and left to rot. Only the British can convince themselves it is the height of mental health to turn graphic sexual assault and murder into art, or at least into entertainment. The golden rule in packaging depravity as mainstream entertainment: Load it with psychological insights to protect it from charges of obscenity. Sure enough, the plot is Freud soup. The first lead character is a twentysomething woman who still craves approval from her father; the second is a man who harbors murderous rage toward his mother.

The woman is detective Anna Travis, a novice on a murder squad with the London Metropolitan Police. The man is Alan Daniels, a London-based actor in his late 30s, a violet-eyed heartthrob in the Michael York tradition who is just making the crossover from TV to film.

Their respective yearning for validation and revenge are futile -- their parents are dead. Her late father, Jack Travis, who died almost two years before of cancer, was a legend among London detectives, known as “Jack the Knife” for his ability to cut to the truth. Daniels’ mother was Lillian Duffy, a prostitute, pimp and child molester who, until her rape and murder in the 1980s, operated out of one of the scummiest brothels in Manchester.

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The only plausible adult and father figure in the book is James Langton, a twice-divorced, smoking, drinking, door-slamming detective who is running the murder investigation that pits Travis against Daniels. As the novel opens, Langton is working six unsolved cases spread over 12 years. Each victim is a prostitute -- or “dripper” -- a worn-out, drug-addled woman whom the killer has finished off in a frenzy of sex and violence. But the killer is a neatnik. He leaves no evidence. The investigations have gone nowhere. Langton’s squad is about to be shut down -- unless he can convince his superiors that the new killing is the work of the same man.

This time, however, the victim is a 17-year-old virgin with “the face of an angel.” Outrage at her wasted beauty reignites the investigation. (One wonders what would have happened if she were ugly.) As Langton takes on the case, he needs to replace a member of his squad. He chooses Travis, the rookie daughter of his old mentor.

Enter Travis the ingenue, her plain pumps booted in plastic as she steps over the corpse of the defiled angel.

Soon it is revealed that the killer’s first victim more than a decade earlier had been Daniels’ mother, a hardened Manchester whore who systematically abused him as a child. A teenage Daniels was an early suspect, but nothing came of it. He managed to acquire a fine education, move to London, change his name and develop a silky accent.

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There are rules about spoiling plots, however the writing itself is fair game. La Plante’s great gift is plotting. She has few equals at charting the plodding brilliance of cops, and her exultance when their nitpicking hits pay dirt is contagious. It’s what makes “Above Suspicion” very readable. That said, her writing is lazy, occasionally risible. The first time Daniels is pulled in for questioning, his lawyer is introduced with the line: “His chambers were almost as famous as his reputation.”

The book feels less like a novel than a screenplay in waiting. As if not wanting to step on the toes on a director and cast to follow, La Plante has all but forgone nuance and sense of place. It is so sketchy that as Travis and Langton retrace Daniels’ jobs in the United States, she conveys little difference between San Francisco and Manchester. She compensates with some charming improbabilities, such as the “concierge” at a Super 8 Motel.

Back in London, there is more unlikely luxury. It is hard to believe that Daniels could have afforded a palatial spread near Kensington Gardens. His William Morris stained glass would break a superstar’s budget, never mind that of a television actor.

The worst abdication is in characterizing Travis. The heroine is so poorly wrought, she’s hardly there. Even La Plante seems bored by the tidy, single daddy’s girl who eats three-egg omelets for dinner. The character with the most zest is Langton, the boozy, workaholic cop who can chew a sandwich and exhale cigarette smoke from his nose at the same time. His obsession with the case and bull-like energy is the book’s motor.

Yet rather than admit that her heroine is a drip, La Plante makes her over. Travis cuts her hair, buys a new colored wardrobe and becomes a wholly unlikely love interest of Daniels and her boss. By the end, she’s ready to appear on “Oprah.” This perky detective may not only capture the killer and avenge the virgin, but she also emerges as a woman. In the process, La Plante’s dead hooker whodunit has turned into an ugly duckling fairy tale -- and high feminist twaddle.


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