Friday, November 30, 2007

Death in Spain, Murder and Race Relations in Boston and Philadelphia- Part 1

I very recently read The Flanders Panel (TPF) by Arturo Perez-Reverte, A Drink Before the War (ADBTW) by Dennis Lehane and Devil's Corner (DC) by Lisa Scottoline (which I had read once before). On the surface, these books have very little in common. TPF is a literary thriller and murder mystery that spans 500 years, involves the game of chess and revolves around a Flemish painting being restored by a young woman in contemporary Spain. ADBTW marks the gritty debut of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, a team of private detectives from a working-class South Boston background who have stayed close to their roots. DC is a legal thriller about an upper-class Assistant U.S. Attorney who rolls up her sleeves to solve a murder in her father's old neighborhood; it has neither literary nor gritty pretensions, but offers an effective and entertaining story.

In spite of the genre differences, there are some threads that link the books, however. I read (actually re-read) DC because I needed a break from grittiness, and because I was frustrated that I couldn't remember the final twist to the plot. Vicki Allegretti is another Italian-American, Roman Catholic attorney from the Scottoline stable that numbers 12 or more novels. While the Scottoline protagonists are all women, they vary in a number of ways- some are working class, but Vicki grew up with all the advantages of a gated community, an Ivy League education and meddlesome parents who are both lawyers. The book offers a sober look at inner-city Philadelphia by reproducing transcripts from drug trials at the start of each major section. We read on the book's first page from the testimony of a someone who started dealing crack cocaine at age 13. The story itself opens with a nightmare of a night for Vicki: while trying to meet with a confidential informant (CI), Vicki walks in on an apparent robbery. Her colleague, an ATF agent, is killed and so is the CI.

Although this would seem to be a high-profile case, the outbreak of a (related) drug war pulls law enforcement resources in other directions and Vicki decides to investigate on her own. Vicki eventually forms a shaky alliance with the woman, Reheema Bristow, whom she was trying to prosecute, a young black woman who had supposedly bought firearms and then resold them to a criminal. The relationship between Vicki and Reheema starts off about as badly as possible. Not only does Vicki hold Reheema in custody (for a short while) after her only evidence died along with the CI, Vicki is so upset about the death of her partner Morty that she assaults Bristow in the Federal Building, with a public defender present.

Things get interesting when Vicki looks for Reheema's mother, trying to dig for facts about Reheema, and finds that the older Bristow is a drug addict living in the neighborhood where Vicki's father grew up, the tough streets of Devil's Corner. Snooping in the Bristow house and unaware that Reheema's mother has run of with her purse and cell phone, Vicki is surprised to find medals and photos of Raheema's career as a track athlete, supported by her mother, who poses with the team in one snapshot. Mrs. Bristow ends up being murdered that very night, and as Vicki continues to snoop, Reheema confronts her with a loaded gun. Antagonistic, but both wanting justice for Raheema's mother, the two young women slowly form a truce and then an alliance to investigate exactly what the heck is going on and why the police aren't following up on the cases. As the story progresses, the question of how this promising black schoolgirl and athlete became a tough criminal metamorphoses into the question, "Did she ever become a criminal?"

"Devils Corner" encompasses the subjects of decaying neighborhoods, police neglect, political corruption, the drug trade, the utter lack of regard for life that is found in sociopaths who inhabit all "classes" of society, and manages to toss in a love interest for Vicki that she sublimates by getter deeper and deeper into the mystery in a way that only Raheema's help could allow.

Needless to say, this book would not be mistaken for a Dennis Lehane novel or the script for an episode of The Wire. It treats difficult subjects head on, and with considerable detail, but the perspective and tone remain unashamedly rose-tinted under all but the worst of circumstances. Ms. Scottoline doesn't write to expose the rawest nerve endings of a city's lawless drug culture, but she does draw attention to serious problems, including race relations, while telling a good story. So, good for her. Some mornings I just don't feel like waking up to the booze-laden bad breath of Harry Bosch or John Rebus. Some nights I just don't feel like reading about the details of an evisceration, an autopsy or a the last living moments of some unfortunate victim of violent crime. Of course, the people who live out on the street don't get to choose where and when they encounter ugliness and depravity, so I'm very lucky. Nevertheless, only about 2% of my reading solution consists of books like DC.

ADBTW reminded me straight away, before I'd even opened the book, of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, the early Matthew Scudder mystery by Lawrence Block, whose title is taken from the Dave Van Ronk song Last Call. At first, I mistakenly remembered the song title as "Closing Time". I liked that book so much that I spent about 5 years trying to find the van Ronk tune on CD (Going Back to Brooklyn). The CD was re-released in 2006, and when I finally played Van Ronk's tune, I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, the CD is so unremittingly bawdy that I didn't feel comfortable putting in on when my kids were around (and I still don't- they are 13 and 15). Anyway, do give Dave a listen- he combines jazz, blues, ragtime and folk, and sings in a way that a real Dylan fan can appreciate, but with wider appeal as well.

OK, back to an unremitting murder and mayhem. As you may have read, I had mixed feelings about Gone, Baby, Gone, the recent paperback volume in the Kenzie/Gennaro series. However, I felt the language and tone were excellent, it was the plot that just didn't ring true at the end. However, ADBTW stunned me: this book is a must read.

James K. Bashkin

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