Criminal intent
Publication Date: Wednesday Aug 3, 1994

Criminal intent

Two local mysteries entice readers with the familiar

"Murder in a Nice Neighborhood," by Lora Roberts; Fawcett Gold Medal; 187 pp.; $4.95

"The Lessons," by Melanie McAllester; Spinsters Ink; 268 pp.; $9.95

by Don Kazak

Mystery writing is a genre that leaves many readers cold. I could never figure why anyone would waste their time on such books when there are too many good books to read. And then I found out about Tony Hillerman and his quiet books about Navajo tribal police officers . . . Getting there in a good mystery is all the fun, and the trip will be more memorable if the map has some false starts, if the suspected villain isn't really villainous and if the detective screws up a couple of times.

And if the murder is committed on Palo Alto Avenue, so much the better.

"Murder in a Nice Neighborhood" by Palo Alto writer Lora Roberts is a treat because the territory is literally so familiar.

There is also a kind of Palo Alto sensibility about the protagonist, a woman by the name of Liz Sullivan who lives in an old Volkswagen bus, tends a plot at the community gardens, does her book research at the main library, swims laps at Rinconada and teaches a writing class at the Senior Center.

Liz is of the homeless community but not part of it. She knows the people who live under the bridge, but she's a cut above them with her bus, her income, her work.

Still, she knows Pigpen Murphy well enough to try to avoid him whenever she can, until she wakes up one morning to find him murdered under her parked bus.

Liz becomes a source of intrigue for the detective investigating the crime, especially because other people start ending up dead and the only seeming link to the murders is Liz herself.

This is the second in Roberts' Palo Alto series, which started with "Revolting Development" a few years ago (written as Lora Roberts Smith then), with, one hopes, more to come.

There is a tension between Liz Sullivan, who is trying to figure out what's happening, and the cop, Paul Drake, that is reminiscent of the interplay between the V.I. Warshawski character and the cops in Sara Paretsky's novels set in Chicago. In this case, the cop lives in a trailer park, is a gourmet cook and forgoes the wisecracks.

The Liz Sullivan character is nicely understated. The reader only finds out gradually why she shuns having a permanent address and prefers the mobility of her old bus. With luck, she'll hang around Palo Alto a while longer.

"The Lessons" by Melanie McAllester is also set on the Peninsula, at least in part, but in an undefined way without any landmarks or familiar streets. The author is a Palo Alto police officer, as is, one assumes, the detective who starts the story off, Tenny Mendoza.

Mendoza is a homicide investigator put in charge of a case involving a serial rapist, which turns out to have links to similar Southern California cases.

This is a cop story, by a cop, and it's a good one.

The reader gets a good inside look at how investigations are handled, how detectives deal with one another and department brass, and especially how a sense of urgency builds when the police realize what kind of villain they're up against.

The heart of the story isn't so much who did it, which will be revealed in due time, but how the three detectives band together to get the guy.

Mendoza is put on the case in part because the rapist is attacking lesbians, and Mendoza is lesbian.

Then she heads down south to the other department to meet the other two detectives: a young woman officer with just two years on the street, also a lesbian, and a big heterosexual dude who doesn't care for lesbians and has a serious attitude problem. That part is a little predictable, except he turns out to be a bit more complex than first seemed, as does everyone else.

Journalists don't start out looking good in this story, thanks to the stereotype of the obnoxious television reporter, but that turns out more complex, too. The age-old wariness between cops and reporters is realistic here, too.

McAllester has turned out some characters that the reader can start to care for, and then she unleashes them in a plot that has some real suspense to it. You know they're going to get the guy, except he's pretty smart and it all gets very personal at the end. There's less violence here than the average bad Hollywood movie, but a real sense of the danger that violence carries with it.

All in all, two very good reads.

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