Elvis Lives!

Detective and Then Some...

illustration by A.J. Garces

With Indigo Slam, the seventh novel in his best- selling Elvis Cole series, Angeleno detective novelist Robert Crais returns to the early form that had readers and critics hailing him as the wunderkind of the gumshoe set. Its immediate predecessors were, by turns, rote (Voodoo River) and unexceptional (Sunset Express). This time out, he delivers the goods in his best-crafted thriller to date.

Cynics note that freelance investigator Cole and his supporting cast are concocted straight from Robert Parker's Spenser recipe book and transplanted to Los Angeles from Boston. I like to think that Crais has taken classic ingredients (the genre wasn't born with Parker) and added liberal dollops of his own unique spice to great effect. At his best, the author's crackling dialogue and roller-coaster plotting re-invigorate the clichéd "wisecracking gumshoe."

At the outset of Indigo Slam (Hyperion, $22.95 hard), fifteen-year-old Teri Haines (aka Hewitt) and her two siblings arrive at Cole's office with a dilemma -- their father has gone missing and they have a secret: They were part of and have since left the federal witness protection program. The reluctant sleuth's tentative inquiries reveal deeper troubles than the kids could imagine. Go figure. Naturally, every layer stripped away uncovers a new secret, more dangerous than the last. Daddy Clark, who appears and disappears with unsettling regularity, finds himself at the center of multiple universes that are entirely out of his control and are moments away from colliding. He's burned a lot of bridges and burned a lot of people and now it's payback time. He and his barely functional family are under attack from outside and within. The feds can't help. The cops can't help. Only Elvis (of course) and his partner Joe Pike, a walking assault weapon of a Sphinx in mirrored aviator shades, can keep the Haines/Hewitt family's already wobbly world from spinning off its axis.

Mobbed-up Russian expatriates, Vietnamese democratic patriots, and world-weary G-men and cops inhabit the book as well as scene-stealing bit players. These walk-ons, by now a requisite feature of Cole's adventures, whip up some laugh-out-loud-funny moments. The stable of regular characters check in to their familiar roles, including Cole's perpetually and comically jealous feline housemate. Devotees will be pleased to see Lucy Chenier's appearance early and often (Spenser fans read: Susan Silverman). The family members are nicely drawn and exhibit the emotional and behavioral tics that you'll recognize from your most recent clan reunion, such as the preteen Charles who spews invective under the juvenile guise of throat-clearing ("`Asshole,' he coughed.").

A wealth of plots and subplots propel Indigo Slam with dizzying speed against a backdrop that shifts from Seattle to Los Angeles and elsewhere. Counterfeit dong (you'll see), criminal revenge, and the dissipation and re-integration of family are just a few of the disparate themes that somehow find common ground. The storyline holds up nicely and the pace only slows long enough to expertly weave ongoing storylines into the tale (it is a series after all) before revving up again. The twists and turns are credible and the bang-up denouement is rewarding.

A few volumes back, Crais' ear for dialogue abandoned him and once-witty repartee devolved into juvenile banter. Plots were muddled and characters wandered through the pages without purpose. But Indigo Slam is Crais at his finest -- crisp, cool, and sassy -- which is as good as it gets. Like most other bleary-eyed Crais fans, you'll find yourself turning pages until the morning sun starts to peek through the blinds. -- Mike Shea

After more than 10 novels about Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, crime writer James Lee Burke has turned to his Texas roots for story material. In Cimarron Rose (Hyperion, $24.95 hard), his new protagonist is Billy Bob Holland, a former Houston policeman, Texas Ranger, and Assistant U.S. Attorney who is back in his fictional Hill Country hometown of Deaf Smith practicing law. Both the author and his fictitious attorney-protagonist Billy Bob are the great-great-grandsons of Sam Morgan Holland, a real Confederate soldier who spent the post-war years as a gunslinger before being baptized as a Baptist preacher. Burke skillfully weaves his own family history around Billy Bob, often quoting from Sam Morgan Holland's own journal. The title refers to the outlaw woman Sam loved and nicknamed the Cimarron Rose, but the historical quotations and Central Texas setting are really the only things that distinguish Cimarron Rose from any Dave Robicheaux story.

Billy Bob is haunted with guilt about possibly causing the death of his former Ranger partner, L.Q. Navarro, and converses regularly with Navarro's ghost. The hero abandons a successful career in law enforcement and returns to a pastoral life, where he spends time fishing with a small Hispanic child. Burke's awareness of all the ravages of alcoholism shapes the story. The bad guys are local rich people who consort with local and imported scummy trash to do their dirty work. Billy Bob resorts to violent behavior even though he's forsaken it. To Burke fans who have read his entire catalogue, the resemblances may create a sense of having read this book before. Old Billy Bob sure has a fascinating family history, but why is he living Dave Robicheaux's life transplanted in the Hill Country?

The Hill Country setting brings up my other point of contention with this book. Burke may well have taken artistic license with the geographical information in his books set in Louisiana and I didn't know enough to be bothered by it. However, when he describes a Texas locale where there are bluebonnets, pine trees, tumbleweeds, peach trees, fields of alfalfa, oil field workers, a good-sized river and stock tanks big enough to fish in that is near both San Antonio and the historic Chisum cattle trail, I'm dizzy with confusion.

Fans of the Dave Robicheaux series may be interested to know that Burke's next novel featuring the Cajun detective comes out later this year. The author also told me this week that Texas actor Tommy Lee Jones will direct and act in the film version of the bestselling Robicheaux novel Dixie City Jam and TNT is preparing a television film of an earlier novel about the Holland family entitled Two for Texas. When the second novel featuring Billy Bob Holland arrives in 1998, I hope that Billy Bob has developed some demons of his very own. -- Virginia B. Wood

Conventional wisdom has it that it's the female half of the species that goes a little nutty once a lunar cycle. But Lunatics by Bradley Denton (Bantam, $12.95 paper) sets out to prove that moonlight cuts both ways by creating Jack, an ex-engineer trying to fill the void left by his dead wife, who believes that a moon goddess is telling him to bathe naked in her light, as well as a wacky assortment of other kooky characters who find themselves equally trapped by this celestial orb's changeable nature.

Denton did not have to stray too far from home to find these folks held in Luna's sway. His novel is set in an Austin that may actually exist, if only you can believe that an owl-like woman swoops into town every 28 days and that APD actually cares if a fortysomething man runs about the greater downtown area stark naked. Personally, I've seen things on the Drag that stretched reality more than Denton's mythic Austin, so, while the book has been written by a John W. Campbell Memorial award winner, given to outstanding young writers in the science fiction/fantasy field, this novel should not scare regular old fiction readers who do not want to spend time with talking trees or overly cute gnomes.

Lunatics is still a fantasy, however, à la Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It, in which all of the characters must spend some time in a forest primeval, the Hill Country, in order to better understand their relationships with the rest of the world. Identities become confused and exchanged, as are sexual partners and loyalties. The deep pettiness and peevishness that resides just below the surface of Denton's creations is allowed to romp about the forest as well, and it is this not-so-pleasant side that leads to some tense banter, crushed feelings, and actual conflict. But no one stays very angry for very long and all is well that ends well, provided, like Lunatics, it has a solid and downright charming denouement.

But there are points at which the book loses its breezy persona and struggles to give these characters real pathos, passages through which we are supposed to feel genuinely sorry for these souls who have wandered into this forest of transformation.

These characters, however, are not quite developed enough to make it easy to see them as more than Denton's pawns and invest in their fears. Regardless, Denton has written a lovely book that is perfect for these languid summer days when a young man or woman's thoughts turn to fancy and looks for an enchanting read to pass the time until moonrise. -- Adrienne Martini

The real-life Violette Leduc never really caught on in America. While comparatively unknown here, Leduc was a contemporary and companion of such French luminaries as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and Cocteau... and in love with the homosexual writer Maurice Sachs. It didn't work out.

In Violette's Embrace by Michele Zackheim (Berkley, $12 paper), the fictionalized retelling of Leduc's life is conducted by a fifty-year-old American painter. The painter has traveled to Paris to find the real pleasant Leduc, for whom she has an unexplained affinity. What she finds instead is Leduc's life as viewed by Leduc's friend and neighbor, Lili Jacobs. When Leduc and Jacobs met during World War II, they were both criminals. Jacobs worked with the resistance and Leduc dealt in black market butter. Like many women, Violette Leduc's vision of the world was defined by her childhood and face; both were unpleasant. Born illegitimate in 1907, Leduc was unwanted and unloved.

Leduc's unhappy childhood was compounded by her unhappy face, especially her nose. It has been documented that attractive babies are given far more attention than less attractive infants. Armchair psychoanalysts would no doubt credit Leduc's adult need for attention and affection to her early deprivation. Leduc's unflinching public analysis of herself in her books can be seen as group therapy, with thousands of readers as her group.

Despite the title and trauma, the real focus of Violette's Embrace is the friendship between the Frenchwoman Lili Jacobs and the American painter. While Jacobs tells the American about Leduc, she reveals her own life and how it embraced Leduc's.

Violette Leduc has been hailed as France's greatest unknown writer. While it is difficult to attest to the veracity of that statement through the slim evidence presented in the book, Leduc emerges as an interesting and engaging figure. And an elegantly clad figure, too -- after all, this is Paris.

Violette's Embrace is as short and inconsequential as a hug. It is quickly gone but the memory of it remains pleasant.

-- Anna Hanks

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