Back in the Columbo era, you could deduce the bad guy in TV whodunits by spotting the conspicuous guest star. In the brave new world of Law and Order, you now identify the villain by using a political correctness meter. They might as well arrest, book and sentence the white business guy the moment he appears on screen.
If you'd like a break from thrillers where every side comment by the hero mocks your faith, your politics or your values — or every third bad guy espouses a caricatured version of them -- check out the latest novels by three of Southern California's finest mystery writers.
The Watchman by Robert Crais
Only social critic David Blankenhorn has written more passionately about the issue of fatherhood than has bestselling crime writer Robert Crais in recent years.
Crais has made his mark with a string of emotionally satisfying action thrillers that extol the virtues of the traditional family. His work is a sharp contrast to the icky pseudofeminist sub-genre of mysteries in the 1980s and '90s that featured perverse fathers as the all-purpose bad guys and in which incest became the predictable "shocking" plot twist.
That's not to say every father in a Crais book is Ward Cleaver with a shoulder holster and a wicked right hook. Crais often makes use of bad fathering examples, from abandonment to abuse, to score his points.
Crais' first few books which featured L.A. private eye Elvis Cole were Robert Parker-lite with a West Coast twist. Cole is a wisecracking but deadly hero who comes complete with a deadly, laconic sidekick (tattoo-sporting, sunglasses-wearing Joe Pike). But while Parker's Spenser series has degenerated into self-conscious posturing about manliness, like a weightlifter admiring his muscles in the spa mirror, Cole acts like a real man. The overt message of Crais' recent novels -- being a loving and responsible father is the real measure of a man -- is so prominent it should earn him a promotional link at the Fatherhood Initiative website,
Crais has devoted the last half-dozen books of the Cole series to exploring his characters' longing for normal family life. This culminated in the very un-Boomer-like notion that the safety and security of a child should come before the romantic fulfillment of two adults.
His latest, The Watchman, is his first to feature Joe Pike in a leading role. Pike, we learn, has perhaps the most politically incorrect resume in crime fiction history — He's been a Marine, an LAPD patrolman under Darryl Gates, and signed up to hunt bad guys overseas as a private military contractor.
Pike has been given the job of protecting rich wild child Larkin Connor Barkley (think Paris Hilton), who is being targeted by killers because she ran her Aston Martin into a car filled with people who couldn't afford to be seen together, making her a federal witness to conspiracy.
Everyone -- his former LAPD training officer who recommends him, the bumbling crews from the various levels of Homeland Security and even the father whose attention she desperately seeks -- seems to know a little more about the "why" of Larkin's situation than Pike does. A leak amongst the feds keeps them on the run, and Pike's gun blazing.
Between shootouts, we learn more about Pike's brutal childhood, why he left the police department, and what he did as a PMC in Africa. It all ties in with his terse explanation later in the book as to why he's willing to put himself on the line for the pampered Barkleys-- "Families need protecting."
Serial killer novels lately have found excuses for their monsters in anger generated by abusive or neglected childhoods. Cole and Pike -- Crais' modern reincarnations of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday -- refute that notion by channeling their dark side toward setting things right and protecting the innocent.
When authors dare to bring the mysterious supporting character to the fore, it often ruins the fun of the enigma. Joe Pike emerges from The Watchman with his intrigue factor intact and sure to leave readers wanting even more.
Obsession by Jonathan Kellerman
Another classic mystery sidekick who doesn't accept nasty childhoods as excuses for aberrant behavior is LAPD homicide detective Milo Sturgis, the best friend of Jonathan Kellerman's psychologist/sleuth hero, Alex Delaware. When another character or another blames a suspected sociopath's horrible upbringing for his actions, Milo is there to reply, "There's always a choice."
Kellerman's debut novel, "When the Bough Breaks," gullibly exploited the child abuse hysteria aroused by the McMartin day care case; but he since has atoned with a score of novels that regularly rebuke pop psychology and Freudian excuses for evil.
In Obsession, Kellerman's latest thriller, Alex is revisited by one of his success stories, Tanya Bigelow, a serious little girl who developed nervous tics bordering on obsessive compulsive disorder when her mother abandoned her to the care of her Aunt Patty. Now Tonya is a seemingly well-adjusted pre-med student.
In a medication-induced delirium on her deathbed, Patty seems to confess to Tanya that she committed a killing. Unable to let it go, Tanya turns to her old child psychologist, Alex, not just to treat her recurrent symptoms but also because of his crime-solving reputation. Alex takes the impossibly cold case in order to treat Tanya and looks into unsolved murders in the vicinity of the places the two had lived.
Since Patty was widely thought of as the next thing to Clara Barton, Alex and Milo assume some kind of self-defense theory when they see the neighborhoods she lived in. Perhaps Patty shot an intruder and was afraid of the gun law violation that would result.
Rosie O'Donnell has been raving the past few weeks about gun control, but like many celebs who take that position, she is personally protected by armed guards. Milo and Alex note this phenomenon:
"Be nice to know if Patty had any registered guns."
"Or unregistered. If she wanted serious protection on the streets, she'd have to break the law. You know the deal with carry permits."
"Movie stars, millionaires, or friends of the sheriff."
This kind of talk wouldn't cut it on Law and Order but will come as no surprise to Kellerman's readers. His recent novels have included plots in which a predator uses California's lack of a parental consent law for abortion to cover up his exploitation of girls in foster care, a bad guy's library record provides a crucial bit of evidence, and several books that take on eugenics and assisted suicide. Recently while the rest of the media was crying for gun control after the Virginia Tech massacre, Kellerman wrote a fearless Wall Street Journal Op-Ed blaming radical 60s ideology for making it impossible to force the future "slaughterer" into treatment.
Of course, the solution in Obsession is not as simple as Alex and Milo suppose; and their investigation takes them to the "real Hollywood," the dingy and depressing houses and hotels where pornography rakes in big bucks for very little investment or financial risk, and the soul pays the real cost of doing business.
Kellerman contrasts the reactions of three young adults to their parents' sexual infidelities — two become ultra-straight arrows, while one chooses to let his baser instincts take over.
As Alex begins to put it all together, Milo comments, "You really do have a flair for the dark side." It's true. Kellerman's books will never be included in your church library, no matter what their ultimate moral.
Storm Runners by T. Jefferson Parker
T. Jefferson Parker sometimes writes political books. California Girl, for instance, had as its background the extreme political clashes between left and right in the 1960s and '70s, when professors were chanting for Ho Chi Minh and cops were joining the John Birch Society.
But Parker's anything but predictable. Pacific Heat, for instance, featured a typical voracious environment-destroying developer as its villain.
But, Storm Runners, his newest suspense novel, is one of his most original and least political despite the following elements:
- A healthy does of skepticism about how much we really know about the weather and the climate, much less how much power we have to affect it,
- The love interest is both a practicing Christian and a virgin,
- A portrayal of our Southern border as ruled by the Mexican Mafia whose biggest problem is not the Border Patrol, but competition from Salvadoran gangs like MS-13,
- The suit-wearing villain is not the standard corporate executive or an entrepreneur but a bureaucrat in a government monopoly,
- Reasons why life in prison without parole is insufficient to protect the innocent from organized criminals
- Most shocking of all—the hero makes a positive offhand remark about Ronald Reagan!
Parker often features bad things happening to good people, but even by his standards, Deputy Matt Stromsoe has had a rough go of it. His wife and son were killed by a car bomb meant for him -- and the explosive was planted by Miguel Tavarez, a Mexican Mafia honcho with whom Matt went to high school.
Now, Matt's a gimpy one-eyed operative for a security company run by his best friend, a fellow ex-cop who dragged him out of a two-year binge of drink and despair. Matt's first assignment is to protect gorgeous San Diego weathergirl Fankie Hatfield from a stalker.
Of course, the stalker is no ordinary creep. It turns out Frankie is the granddaughter of a legendary rainmaker, now thought to be a con artist or a lunatic. Frankie is secretly continuing her grandfather's research, and this bothers the head of the utility that provides Los Angeles with its water. Before you can say, "Chinatown," the imprisoned Tavarez, who still runs his gang operation from "maximum" security, is given an incentive to take another shot at Matt.
In traditional noir, the protagonist is flawed -- sometimes fatally -- and trying to redeem himself after being caught up in something shady. Parker's M.O. is to write about good people battling overwhelming circumstances (like the weather) that are beyond their control. Call it the noir of the normal.
Storm Runners is an unusually affecting thriller, thanks to a unique plot, believable characters we genuinely care about and redemption that comes from an unexpected source. T. Jefferson Parker continues to be one of our most intriguing suspense writers.