Ruins, fish, forensics and sadism

Thrillers And Mysteries

January 13, 2002|By Jody Jaffe | Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

I don't know why John Katzenbach's books don't live on the best-seller list, he's as good as the regulars who camp out there. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun reading as I did with his latest, The Analyst (Ballantine, 432 pages, $25).

Katzenbach's been making a visceral grab for his readers' full attention since In the Heat of the Summer, the can't-put-it-down thriller made into the movie, The Mean Season. He does it again with The Analyst, a creepy cat-and-mouse-game so devious it makes your skin crawl -- and your fingers itch for the next page.

On his 53rd birthday, New York psychoanalyst Ricky Starks gets a letter telling him he's got 15 days to discover the writer's identity. If he fails, he must kill himself -- or a family member will be destroyed. "You ruined my life and now I fully intend to ruin yours," the letter says.

Calling himself Rumplestiltskin, the letter writer then systematically obliterates every aspect of Stark's orderly life until he's left broke and homeless. We follow the journey Stark makes as he reaches into the depths of his soul and comes back a different and better person. On a deeper level, The Analyst could be seen as an allegory for the break-down / build-back process of psychotherapy where you must first identify your demons in order to neutralize them. But who cares about deeper levels when you're having so much fun?

Anyone who dedicates a book to writer Peter Meinke must know about good writing. Author James W. Hall clearly does. His Blackwater Sound (St. Martin's Minotaur, 339 pages, $24.95) is a lyrically written, evocative thriller that's part Moby Dick, part Old Man and the Sea. Though the Florida Keys don't speak to my soul and I have little interest in deep-sea fishing, Hall's book held me captive.

When Andy Braswell is swept overboard in a horrible fishing accident, his dysfunctional family disintegrates into madness. (And they were pretty twisted to start with.) The family devotes itself to tracking the marlin responsible for the boy-genius's death, while trying to save their techno company from ruin with Andy's futuristic inventions. Ten years later, the family is still hunting the marlin when a jumbo jet crashes into the Florida bay where Thorn, the series' Travis McGee-like hero, has just been dumped by his girlfriend.

The events are nefariously related and Thorn finds himself embroiled in murders, the search for a secret high-tech weapon, double-crossing feds and terrorists. There's plenty of suspense to speed you along, but the writing's so beautiful you'll want to linger.

Like Hall, author Mary Logue is a poet turned crime novelist. And like Hall, Logue looks to locale for inspiration. The strongest writing in Glare Ice, (Walker, 224 pages, $23.95) is about the harsh beauty of Wisconsin winters where this series is set. Police detective Claire Watkins awakens to an early morning phone call from a sobbing woman who refuses to identify herself, but implies she's been hurt by a man. Later that day, Claire sees a young woman with a battered face hobble into the post office. The postmistress tells Claire who the battered woman is and Claire tries to persuade the woman to reveal her abuser before something worse happens. Of course, something does and, of course, weather plays a role. This is a taut, no-nonsense thriller that takes an unflinching look at the double dance of domestic abuse.

Acting Detective Superintendent Alan Banks has nothing but woman trouble in Aftermath (William Morrow, 387 pages, $25), by English author Peter Robinson. Banks' affair with a beautiful police detective is disintegrating, he's conflicted about the come-ons of a voluptuous psychologist and his estranged wife is pregnant by her boyfriend and wants that divorce now. And then there are the women involved in the murder he's trying to solve.

Fifteen-year-old Kimberley Myers is found dead in a house that may contain even more bodies. Janet Taylor, the cop who discovered her, may face charges for brutalizing the murder suspect, and the suspect's wife is either a helpless dupe or a force of evil. As Banks and his team unravel the horrific details, the tension mounts. Robinson is particularly strong with forensic procedures.

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