Plotting Away

A mystery-reading weekend results in two strikes and a hit.

About halfway through Breach of Duty, J.A. Jance's latest mystery featuring the wry, ex-alcoholic Seattle police detective J.P. "Beau" Beaumont, I start obsessing over whether the word "latte" should be italicized—as it is throughout. This illustrates two points. First, that Breach is as packed with Seattle references as the other mysteries in Jance's popular Beaumont series; second, that despite the fun of hearing J.P. gripe about Seattle yuppification and traffic on I-5, the book lacks the power to hold your attention. Breach of Duty

by J.A. Jance (Avon, $23) Loot

by Aaron Elkins (William Morrow, $24) Last Ditch

by G.M. Ford (Avon, $23) Too bad. Of the three mysteries I dashed through on a recent weekend in search of an entertaining, suspenseful read, my hopes were highest for Jance's. It started out at a good clip: Morose because the crime business is slow, Beau perks up when he and partner Sue Danielson are slapped with two new cases. In the first, a friendless older woman named Agnes Ferman dies suspiciously in a house fire. In the second, some local kids who have a nasty habit of playing vampire discover human remains during one of their games in Seward Park. Or they say they discovered them. It turns out the bones are actually those of a long-dead shaman of the Suquamish tribe, stolen—by the kids, apparently—from a burial ground. This bit of information is supplied by a Quinault Native American named Darla Cunningham, who shows up in Beau's office to warn him that if those shaman's bones aren't returned—pronto—the shaman will phone in a curse and bodies will start flying. Which they do. This is where the plot unraveled, and my attention shifted to mundane details such as the italicization of "latte." Now you might grudgingly buy that cynical Beau would believe the shaman story as quickly as he does, but when the curse is used to tie up a shocking number of loose ends, J.A. Jance seems to be the one getting away with murder. Aaron Elkins' Loot starts in Boston, where art historian Benjamin Revere has an occasional gig helping track stolen art. On cue, a possible Velằuez shows up in the pawn shop of an elderly Russian immigrant. Revere rushes over to inspect. Yep, it's a Velằuez, looted by the Nazis from its Jewish owners at the end of the war, then seized by the Russians. Before you can say "Russian mafia," the pawn shop owner is dead and Revere is off to Vienna, Budapest, and St. Petersburg to find the murderer, find the rightful owner of the painting, and find himself. Elkins knows his stuff, giving interesting details about the sordid history of the Nazi art-looting machine and the current tangle of competing claims. Interesting, but ultimately not entertaining, mainly because Revere is too wishy-washy to be likable. One minute, he's downing Fritos and screw-top Chianti in Beantown, watching TV and moaning over his failed marriage. The next minute, he's in full art-scholar mode, whooping it up in Vienna with an ex-count, one of the Velằuez claimants, and waxing away about pigmentation and light quality. I wasn't placing any bets on my third try, G.M. Ford's Last Ditch, the fifth book in Ford's Leo Waterman series. At first, both protagonist and plot sounded like Ford and J.A. Jance must be buying bread at the same bakery. Leo Waterman is a cynical Seattle PI, and another set of old bones turns up, this time in the Watermans' backyard. They belong to Peerless Price, a right-wing, muckraking journalist who disappeared—famously—in 1969. The prime suspect in the reopened case is Waterman's dead father, Wild Bill Waterman, a colorful City Council member who had strong union and Mafia ties, and one archenemy: Peerless Price. The papers, delighted, start printing up daily reports in "Princess Di typeface." Waterman, furious, starts doing his own digging. The plot twists are sharp, helped along by the rhythm of Waterman's smartass commentary, and characters that are unusually well-drawn. These include the band of drunks Waterman fishes out of the Eastlake Zoo whenever he needs surveillance help; and Amy, a home health aide for an ex-cop who has plenty of secrets to spill. Amy's sweet but slow. ("I'd hate like hell to explain Noam Chomsky to her," Waterman says.) Most appealing is Waterman. He's a mess. As he tracks down clues, he's usually standing in a soggy phone booth in the International District or trudging up a hill from his broken-down Fiat. But beneath his constant stream of one-liners ("A waterway," he muses at one point, "is bureauspeak for 'river they screwed on purpose'"), he builds a fascinating portrait of a Seattle rattling with old jealousies and corrupt deals. Eventually, he stumbles on the key to the puzzle of Price's death, a 30-year-old tragedy that has echoed through the lives of many of the characters in Last Ditch in ways that are wholly unexpected. And there's also a great cliffhanger scene that finally gets some use out of the half-built Mariners stadium.

 
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