Griffin's 'Investigators': Details, details

January 18, 1998|By Lauren Weiner | Lauren Weiner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Investigators: A Badge of Honor Novel," by W.E.B.

Griffin. Putnam. 409 pages. $24.95.

On the old TV show "Dragnet," Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department used to say he wanted "the facts, ma'am, just the facts." Even as we mocked actor Jack Webb's wooden delivery, we tended to accept the show's premise: that the cops were good with a capital "g," and good at their jobs.

W.E.B. Griffin's "Badge of Honor" detective novels likewise adopt the earnest point of view of official law and order, rather than that of a bemused "private eye" outsider/skeptic like Philip Marlowe. Griffin believes in the institutions he describes. His men of the Philadelphia police department, city government and FBI always collar the bad guys - including the corrupt in their own ranks. Griffin's plots are complex, and he revels in his lawmen's ability to put the puzzle together. He hasn't an ounce of cynicism except where criminal-coddling liberals are concerned. We're in the land of duty, bravery, a man's word is his bond. It's corny. But even corn has its standards, and this, volume seven of the series, falls far short of its predecessors.

In "The Investigators," the recurring cast of inspectors, chief inspectors, plainclothesmen, highway patrol officers, district attorneys and FBI agents go after some terroristic animal rights activists while also purging "dirty cops" from the Narcotics Unit. As usual, Griffin describes Philadelphia crime investigation down the smallest detail, placing the action against the backdrop of a somewhat romantically crumbling infrastructure (police headquarters is a converted 1892 schoolhouse).

Griffin's thirst for sociological and bureaucratic detail has served him well in the past; after all, institutions can be fascinating human hives. Previous books in the series gave the procedural and political ins and outs of police work in ways that forwarded the plot or helped to define the characters. There was interesting local detail, and entertaining byplay between the various ethnic types on the police force. But all the good material seems to have been used up. By volume seven, the kinds of specifics we delve into are how police department automobiles are allotted, or what kind of conference rooms the regional FBI office has as compared to those at police headquarters.

The details aren't put to any discernible use, and often the characters aren't either. Detective Matt Payne is back, and holds our interest in a charming, cocky, Tom Cruise sort of a way. But secondary characters just float by without purpose. Cops from past "Badge of Honor" books make an entrance, then simply disappear.

This sloppiness takes a toll on the book's moral qualities. A woman who has been sexually assaulted is said to be "on the edge of schizophrenia" because of the trauma, and "The Investigators," decent and feeling men that they are, express their outrage and try to protect her from anything that could put her over the edge. Does their ace police work save her, in the end, from life in a psychiatric ward? There's no follow-through only on what happens to the perpetrator), so we never find out.

On "Dragnet," they never would have left the distressed damsel stranded like that.

Lauren A. Weiner is an editor in the office of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona). She has worked as a reporter, writer and editor for the Washington Times, the Institute for Contemporary Studies and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, Insight and elsewhere .

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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