A Gang, an Estate, an Odd Family
DOZENS of mysteries are published every week. How does one sift through the pile for the handful reviewed? This reviewer looks for quality of craft, a solid building of suspense, and something value-added - the introduction of new information. The mysteries that follow contain one or more of these elements.
Robert Parker's latest mystery, Double Deuce (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 224 pp., $19.95), pits the smart, gruff, and witty detectives Spenser and Hawk against an implacably angry gang culture in a black housing development in Boston.
Hawk has been hired to find out who killed a 14-year-old girl and her baby and to clean up Double Deuce, the project. Parker offers few clues, but the gang is strongly suspected. And the police aren't exactly making it a high priority.
Hawk invites Spenser to share the low-pay, high-risk job. The two drive Hawk's Jaguar into the courtyard and just sit. They are sometimes joined by Jackie, a classy TV reporter preparing for a story. She sits, too. Eventually, as Hawk predicts, something happens. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are watching how the detectives and gang members wrestle for physical and mental control over Double Deuce. Sometimes that control involves selective head-knocking; other times it's surprisingly del icate.
The detectives meet the ringleader, Major, who has been on his own since he was 11; Tallboy, the baby's father, who looks tough but cries over the loss of the child; and Tony Marcus, a sleazy drug dealer and his refrigerator of a bodyguard, Billy.
Spenser, who is white, is not taken to too kindly by the black adults who gather to tell Hawk, who is black, what is wrong with Double Deuce; he is referred to as "Satan," "the Face," or "Irish."
No one will talk, so Spenser turns to the one white person the kids trust, Erin Macklin, a schoolteacher who spends afternoons and evenings with them. Ms. Macklin's explanations of gang culture help pierce the layers of distrust, violence, and ritualized masculinity that envelop the gang.
Two parallel streams run through "Double Deuce": solving the murder and resolving relationship problems. The solitary Hawk hooks up with Jackie. As she finds out, Hawk has left the ghetto behind, but it has left its mark on him; he can't let anyone get close.
As usual, the relationship that gets the most attention is the witty, understated, and loyal one between Hawk and Spenser. Both realize that as big as the problems are with their chosen profession, they are fit for no other and have come to terms with the sacrifices it demands of them. Spenser discovers something new about Hawk: His ironclad willingness to kill if he has to is jolted when Hawk starts to see in Major an early version of himself.
A Western-style showdown punctuates the end, with Major walking out slowly from behind a tower, as 20 of his "homeboys" line up. Dramatic stuff, but Hawk and Spenser puncture it with their usual under-pressure quips. They wrap up the confrontation speedily and professionally.
In a way, that's what the book is like, speedy and professional. But it's not gripping and ultimately doesn't shed that much more light on the harsh life of young people in the drug culture than one can get from in-depth newspaper stories. "Double Deuce" is bleak, cool - and a little heartless.
In Kissing the Gunner's Daughter (Mysterious Press/Warner Books, 378 pp., $19.95) by Ruth Rendell, the crime takes place in a totally opposite setting - a mansion in an ancient English forest.
This typically English locale has no clerics or spinster sleuths, however. The dapper, introspective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford is called in on a shocking murder: A septuagenarian celebrity writer, her trophy younger husband, and her daughter are gunned down around the dining room table. While jewelry has been stolen, motives and suspects seem remarkably sparse in Rendell's psychological thriller, as tightly contrived as an English maze.
Chief Inspector Wexford is concerned about the only surviving witness, Daisy, the 17-year-old granddaughter who survived the attack. Now a despondent heiress, she has too many handsome young men revolving around her for Wexford's comfort.
As he visits Daisy to obtain details of the killing, he finds himself becoming attached to her. At the same time, he is mourning the loss of his daughter to an insufferably arrogant writer. Soon, he begins to see the connection.
With a veritable opera of bizarre suspects, Rendell provides a mystery that is rich in physical and sociological detail. Much is made of class distinctions and the resentment as well as fascination of the working class for the aristocracy - of those who have to clean up after those who go through life making a mess. She has a great ear for the dialects of different classes - especially the whines.
"Kissing the Gunner's Daughter" (the title is a nautical expression) spools out languorously while Rendell tells all about the forest that the matriarch restored, the houses, and the strange habits of the people Wexford and his men so patiently question.
It will take a sharp eye to pick out the subtle clues that lead up to a quiet and perfectly logical denouement. Rendell gives up nothing easily.
Everybody always thinks the butler did it. Less often do people give a servant credit for knowing who did it. But what better detective could there be than someone with intimate knowledge of his or her employers' ways?
Better even than a butler is a black maid. As fiction writer Barbara Neely shows, the master-slave relationship gave blacks working for whites heightened sensitivity to white people's moods and deceits.
That's certainly the case in Neely's first mystery, Blanche on the Lam (St. Martin's Press, 180 pp., $16.95). From the beginning, spunky, plump Blanche is portrayed as someone who lives inside her skin.
Blanche is sent to jail for unintentionally bouncing a check. On the way, she escapes during a melee and ends up at a mansion where the lady of the house thinks Blanche is the maid she is expecting. Blanche decides to stay while she waits out the heat.
But this is a pretty odd family. The high-strung lady of the house lines up the objects in her bedroom a precise distance apart. Her sinister, handsome husband threatens the sheriff, and the next day the sheriff is dead. An elderly, supposedly ill relative, kept a virtual prisoner in her room, one day eats like a horse.
A young cousin named Mumsfield, who has Down's syndrome, connects with Blanche in a way she finds both endearing and annoying.
Neely, who is black, gives an insider's look at servant-master relationships, and what she tells will probably make some white readers squirm.
Blanche has developed a physical radar that warns her when employers are about; the hair on the nape of her neck rises to attention. Blanche, perturbed by the secretiveness of the household, and alarmed by two deaths, snoops. She can tell a lot by clothing and furnishings. And her canny way of listening gets some members of the family to spill the beans.
The plot is pedestrian (scheming over an inheritance), and characterizations of whites are stereotypical. But "Blanche on the Lam" is nonetheless an intriguing story about a feisty, funny black woman who keeps her dignity and self-worth alive while working for strange white people.