Mysteries probe cyberspace and fishing

August 22, 1994|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Special to The Sun

Julie Smith has written a number of fine crime novels focusing on dysfunctional families, and her latest, "New Orleans Beat," features two of them -- one real, one virtual. The messed-up flesh-and-blood clan is the Kavanagh family, whose son, Geoff, has just died under suspicious circumstances. But the victim felt much closer to his cyberspace chums on the TOWN, a computer network seemingly patterned after San Francisco's WELL.

Detective Skip Langdon of the New Orleans Police Department is called in to investigate, starting with Geoff's dazed, eccentric mother, Marguerite Terry, who floats through life in a perpetually tranquilized state. What Skip learns during her initial visit makes Geoff seem like something of a misfit; 31 years old, he still lived with his parents, in a room filled with science-fiction books and computer equipment.

From Geoff's best friend, Layne, the detective discovers that the death has been a hot topic of discussion on one of the TOWN's computer bulletin boards. The friends Geoff met on the network have been posting numerous theories about his alleged murder and, Skip finds, to her consternation, that the TOWNsfolk know far more than the police do.

The suspicion focuses on several postings Geoff made shortly before his death, claiming that he'd begun recovering memories of witnessing the unsolved murder of his father many years before. So far, Geoff hadn't mentally retrieved the image of the killer's face, but it was obvious that he was getting close.

"The TOWN has almost ten thousand subscribers all over the world," explains Layne. "Someone in Marrakech could have seen the postings and come to New Orleans for the sole purpose of dispatching Geoff before he got that final damning memory."

Since that makes it look likely that a TOWNsperson committed the crime, Skip immerses herself in the on-line community, getting to know Geoff's circle of cyberpals, including Pearce Randolph, the imperious, self-proclaimed "mayor of the TOWN"; Lenore, a troubled young mother and dabbler in witchcraft; and even Geoff's rebellious younger sister, Neetsie.

Few topics have been done to death in the media as have computer networks and recovered memories, but Ms. Smith impressively breathes new life into these themes; she's obviously done plenty of research, since her portrait of life on-line is much closer to the real thing than most authors' attempts.

There are a couple of intriguing subplots, in which Skip contemplates dumping her longtime, long-distance beau for a tempting local man, and tries to help her neighbor cope with the kids he inherited from his dead sister. Once again, Ms. Smith's combination of a likable heroine and a colorful city has produced a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Margaret Maron's third Deborah Knott novel takes place in a much sleepier part of the South -- Beaufort, N.C., where the judge has been asked to fill in for a hospitalized colleague. The day before her first session in court, Deborah, in pursuit of some clams to eat for dinner, finds a body in the shallow waters of a cove.

The victim turns out to be a local fisherman named Andy Bynum. When Deborah investigates, she finds herself in the middle of a harsh disagreement between Beaufort's locals, who want to maintain their traditional lifestyle, and the town's burgeoning crowds of weekend fishermen and recreational boaters from upstate.

A friend of Deborah's, who owns a fish-meal factory, bitterly tells the judge about "the sportsmen coming down taking whatever they want, developers destroying natural habitats . . . and the tackle shop owners who don't want any nets or big boats in the sound because they say we're driving away the tourists. You won't believe the propaganda they put out about us!"

The only man who had managed to find common ground between the two factions was Bynum, and with his death things threaten to get even uglier. Meanwhile, Deborah is distracted by the arrival of an old flame, as well as the intriguing game warden who's using her cabin as the base for his investigation into the illegal poaching of loons.

Ms. Maron's descriptions of the Carolina shore are beautifully vivid, but as a mystery, "Shooting at Loons" is a bit too slight to be satisfying. Readers curious about the fishing industry will find plenty of details to engage their attention, while those who aren't so inclined may fail to be hooked by this novel.

Ms. Trowbridge is a Baltimore writer and reviewer.

BOOK REVIEW

Title:"New Orleans Beat"

Author: Julie Smith

Publisher: Fawcett

Length, price: 359 pages, $21.50

* Title: "Shooting at Loons"

Author: Margaret Maron

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Length, price: 229 pages,$18.95

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