- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

Even a casual reader would understand why Zack Walker’s wife and children occasionally are tempted to take a stick to him in Linwood Barclay’s debut mystery, Bad Move (Bantam, $22, 310 pages).

Zack is a worrywart of Olympian degree and some of the ploys he uses to make a point are crafted to misfire the minute they are implemented.

Take the “stolen car” ploy, for example, where Zack takes a relatively straightforward situation and adds twists and layers until everyone involved is ready to smack him silly.

So what happens when a worrywart encounters a real crime with real criminals and real danger? You wouldn’t believe. Nor would you believe the cast of characters Walker encounters when he moves his family from the downtown neighborhood they love to deepest suburbia in search of a safe environment.

There’s a dominatrix down the street and the neighbor who is so good with gardening is growing an illegal crop in his basement, and that’s just for starters.

But Zack tops them all when he finds a murder victim in supposedly secure Oakwood. In no time Zack has mixed himself up in the matter so thoroughly that he must solve the crime himself to remain safe from good guys and bad guys alike.

Here is a delightful character (if you’re not married to him) in a clever plot created with thoughtful and skilled writing. Dare we hope for a second encounter?

• • •

Want to solve the murder that opens Jennifer Patrick’s debut novel, The Night She Died (Soho, $24, 325 pages)? Just look for the person who has the most to lose.

Except everyone involved with Lara Walton, the new girl in town, has something to lose when she decides to leave the small, remote Georgia community where she had settled temporarily to grieve for her lover.

Though Lara dies early in the book, we see her in flashback through the eyes of those she touched during her short stay. We also see the dynamics of lives trapped in that isolated town, where every move appears predestined by events that occurred years, even generations, ago.

Big-city Lara, her emotional life in tatters after her lover’s death, is like fireworks, all spark, sizzle and sound, but leaving behind only an image — and wreckage. It is impressive how much damage can be caused without intent.

And eventually Lara herself is destroyed, rather as a pathogen is wiped out when it invades a strong host.

There is a lot of talent on display here. It will be interesting to see Miss Patrick’s next offering.

• • •

Robert Reuland gives us a study in truth and ethics in his second novel, Semiautomatic (Random House, $24.95, 242 pages), in which a good man struggles to avoid doing bad things.

Prosecutor Andrew Giobberti has found himself a foxhole, the appeals bureau, where he can hide from bureaucratic backstabbing and try to recover from the death of his young daughter. Nothing much happens in the office and its occupants never see the inside of a courtroom.

But the bureaucracy is determined — for its own reasons — to root Giobberti out of his hole and back to the homicide bureau to handle what appears a routine case as support to a less-experienced woman prosecutor.

It is not a routine case, for there are questions of law and ethics that must be answered before it can be brought to a just conclusion. And the biggest question is whether the prosecutors have the integrity to do what should be done in the face of pressure just to get the thing out of the way.

The author has crafted an interesting, engaging novel with much food for thought. Onward, Mr. Reuland.

• • •

Anyone who insists that mysteries cannot be “real” literature should be duct-taped to a chair and handed Randy Wayne White’s Tampa Burn (Putnam, $24.95, 372 pages), the latest in the adventures of Doc Ford, the scientist who is more than he seems. For an action-adventure novel, “Burn” spends a lot of time exploring the inner workings of its characters.

There’s Doc Ford, who wants to leave his body-strewn past behind him. He wants to be the marine biologist he presents to the world, not the wet-work specialist kept in deep cover for the government. He struggles constantly to come to terms with the violent professional who lives inside the rational man of science.

His best friend is a New Age guru who killed the innocent to protest the Vietnam War. Now he has become a cult figure to those who have read his book and see his wisdom. But he does not remember writing the book. And Doc Ford, in his alternate identity, once was sent to kill him.

The mix gets stirred when a pyromaniac kidnaps the young son Doc Ford is just beginning to know. There’s more at stake than the ransom money when this burn-scarred maniac gets his hands on Ford’s handsome son, the legacy of a long-ago love affair.

In Mr. White’s hands, even the psycho becomes a sympathetic creature, though one that should be hunted like a rabid dog because, sympathy aside, he is too damaged to fix and too dangerous to live.

Mr. White offers his readers everything they could want: finely, fully developed characters, a plot with believable twists and turns, rich — and accurate (I know the area) — local color, and esoteric information as icing on the cake.

And if you haven’t already read it, grab Mr. White’s previous offering, “Everglades.” Actually, grab them all. I wrote that his first Doc Ford novel created a character fit to walk beside Travis McGee and nine books later, I can gloat about how right I was.

Judith Kreiner is a copy editor at The Washington Times who reads too many mystery novels.

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