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Book Reviews from Mystery*File #42 (Feb. 2004):

Political Suicide, by Alan Russell
St. Martin's Minotaur, hardcover, December 2003

Alan Russell's latest thriller POLITICAL SUICIDE kicks off with a dynamic opening. PI Will Travis foils an attempted murder outside a Maryland bar. The intended victim, Claire Harrington, is the daughter of a recently deceased South Carolina Congressman. Not only does Claire refuse to accept that her father took his own life, she's convinced that he was assassinated on orders from one of the Presidential candidates.

There's much to savor in this book. Russell's strong, fluid writing. The character of Will Travis, a former West Point cadet whose life hasn't turned out the way he planned. A fascinating exploration of the relatively unfamiliar field of 'property shopping,' where investigators visit bars, hotels and restaurants as guests in order to evaluate employee performance. A nicely jaundiced view of primary politics. And a deep, dark secret driving the story that's so daft - and so brilliant - that it's irresistible.

Unfortunately, there's more about the novel that doesn't work. The plot unfolds at a glacial pace. It's encumbered with action sequences that, although inventive, go on too long. Russell compounds matters by incorporating bits of backstory - explaining Will's excellent memory, for instance - that don't add any insight. No character is ever at a loss for a quotation. A few exchanges of dialogue are nothing more than dueling bon mots: "As Winston Churchill said ... In the words of Dr. Johnson ... To quote Charles Nelson Reilly ..." Russell also relies on Hollywood-ready quirks to flesh out minor players like Will's assistant, a Korean-born woman who hasn't yet mastered English and is obsessed with Turner Classic Movies. As a result, she's constantly mangling period slang, an eccentricity that quickly wears out its welcome. Claire's motives and loyalties shift so frequently that she never develops into more than a plot device.

POLITICAL SUICIDE is a decidedly mixed bag, perhaps more fun to read during an election year. Will Travis is a winning character, however, one who deserves to have further adventures.


Fatal Dead Lines, by John Luciew
Pocket Books, paperback original, November 2003

John Luciew's debut novel FATAL DEAD LINES is set on his home turf - the newsroom of a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania daily. Lenny Holcomb once covered the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island and its aftermath. Now he's wrapping up his journalism career in obscurity as the paper's obituary writer. When the governor's top fundraiser drops dead of a heart attack, Lenny makes what looks like a brief return to the front page. But in writing the obit, he exposes a campaign finance scandal that jeopardizes the governor's Presidential aspirations. The murder of the governor's beautiful young press secretary, along with evidence of their sexual relationship, sends the story national. Lenny and his new partner, investigative reporter Jacquelyn 'Jack' Towers, scramble to find the truth before political operatives can cover it up - and before anyone else dies.

Readers should be aware that the book has a supernatural component; Lenny enters a fugue state as he writes obits and finds that the dead speak to him. What's more remarkable is the matter-of-fact way in which Luciew handles this development. He sets up the conceit quickly in the opening chapters and has Lenny accept this ability without question. Some may quibble with the introduction of a paranormal element in an otherwise realistic novel, but as gimmicks go it's an engaging one, and Lenny's reaction is perfectly consistent with his no-nonsense character.

While there are weaknesses in the mystery aspects of the story - Lenny makes a costly error in the handling of evidence that seems beneath a veteran reporter, and sharp-eyed readers will deduce the killer's identity in short order - Luciew's writing makes it a brisk, enjoyable read. His depiction of life at a newspaper is richly nuanced, conveying the often tense nature of the relationship between politicians and the reporters who cover them. The tale builds to an intense climax that incorporates one of Lenny's past triumphs. Lenny's transformation from a short-timer ill at ease in the corporate culture of the newsroom to a man rediscovering his passion for his work is deftly rendered. It's a solid launch for this memorably offbeat character, and a sequel is already on the way.