True crime, military fiction, voodoos

Mysteries & Thrillers

October 27, 2002|By Dail Willis | By Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

Real-life crime books are always either good or horrible. Cape May Court House by Lawrence Schiller (HarperCollins, 368 pages, $24.95) is one of the good ones. Schiller, an investigative journalist and movie director / producer, has made true crime his specialty, writing about O.J. Simpson, the JonBenet Ramsey murder and spy Robert Hanssen. Now he has turned to a less sensational New Jersey case that has never been closed.

Eric Thomas, a dentist in Cape May Court House, N.J., was a passenger in his Ford Explorer when it crashed on a Saturday night in February 1997. His pregnant wife, Tracy, was driving and their baby daughter, Alix, was in the back seat when the sport-utility vehicle left an icy road, hit a utility pole and overturned in a ditch. The baby was unhurt, Eric Thomas had minor injuries and his wife was dead when two passers-by stopped to help.

Police investigated, determined Tracy Thomas had died of injuries from the relatively minor accident, possibly from the inflation of an airbag, and ruled the death an accident.

There the case lay until Eric Thomas sued Ford, claiming the airbag had killed his wife. Ford's team of lawyers conducted their own investigation as they readied for trial, and eventually concluded that Thomas had strangled his wife and staged the accident. It's easy to see what drew Schiller's interest: If Ford's claims are true, then Thomas wins the lifetime achievement award for hubris.

Thomas unsurprisingly refused to talk and eventually dropped his lawsuit. Schiller's book, and Ford's lawyers, make a strong case that the evidence suggests Tracy Thomas was murdered. Her husband, who was involved in an adulterous relationship with a woman he later married, had a strong motive.

It's an interesting book in part because Ford, albeit for reasons of self-interest, was the seeker of truth. It's a refreshing anomaly in these times of corporate scandal. Schiller's book is well-written and carefully fair until the end, when he can't resist a moralistic little lecture about Eric Thomas bringing his trouble on himself. Such self-righteous bow-tying is spiteful and pedantic -- and totally unnecessary. It mars a very nice piece of work.

The fans of Tom Clancy's fiction will find much to like in Shadowmakers by Ralph Wetterhahn (Carroll & Graf, 384 pages, $26). An impossibly virtuous hero takes on an improbably evil alliance, and (I'm not spoiling any surprises here, don't worry) good wins. It's a well-worn formula and there's a reason it has worn so well -- it's entertaining when well-done, and this one is.

Injured Air Force pilot Will Cadence is weighing his options when a mysterious woman turns up at his father's grave. Like him, she is the child of a missing prisoner of war. Soon Cadence is chasing ghosts that he's never been able to name -- but the evil behind the ghosts is real.

There's some fun stuff here, along with maybe more technical airplane details than most people will want or need. Still, it mostly works, and one action scene, involving two planes and a stunt worthy of Chuck Yeager, is outstanding. Wetterhahn knows his military stuff, and the loops and flips in his plotting, while sometimes fantastic, keep the story moving.

Weird crimes and weirder people populate the world created by Jan Burke in Nine (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $24). Set out West, Burke's novel builds suspense by the divide-and-divert method: a chapter on the good guys, a chapter on the bad guys. The suspense builds in part because it's hard to tell for about a third of the book if anyone's a good guy here. Everybody, it turns out, is damaged in some way.

Especially the corpses, who are turning up dead in bizarre ways, each with a number. As the murders stack up, the players begin to resolve themselves into light and dark.

This one is more plot than character, and the careful reader will note that it feels like cheating to make everyone so rich that the plot advances with unreal ease. (Somebody needs to go to Mexico right now? The private jet is warming up. And so on.) But the rest of the book is fairly ingenious, if a little cartoonish.

Frequently, style is the first frill jettisoned in a thriller, sacrificed for plot and action. Not so in Breakout by Richard Stark (Mysterious Press, 288 pages, $23.95). Stark is a pen name for Donald Westlake, whose novels are distinguished by their last-page surprises, and Breakout meets his usual high standard.

Parker (no first name provided) has landed in jail after a warehouse theft went south. He breaks out of jail with two new colleagues and then must repay one by helping out on a jewelry heist. The store's in an old armory, and it isn't long before Parker and his partners are trapped in it and have to break out.

Breakout has a distinctive tone, laconic short sentences with more verbs than adjectives, and Stark wields it like a set of lock picks for maximum effect. It's always fun when the bad guys beat out the badder guys as well as the cops.

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