Comic crime novelists can try too hard. Even the sublime Donald E. Westlake sometimes fell flat (witness the recently reissued “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner”). But they can also get it right.
Take Howard Michael Gould’s debut, “Last Looks” (Dutton, 304 pp., $26).
To seriously understate: Charlie Waldo, the hero of this quirky-to-the-max story, is one eccentric guy. Once an LAPD detective, he now lives a lonely mountain life, penance for a case gone wrong. Deeply concerned about his ecological footprint, Charlie is so obsessed with owning precisely 100 things that he agonizes: Is a pair of socks one item or two?
Then Lorena, an ex-girlfriend turned investigator, zooms in to talk Charlie back into the game. Alastair Pinch — the star of an immensely popular TV show — may have killed his wife in an alcoholic daze. The network’s suits, eager to keep Alastair on-screen, want Charlie to prove him innocent.
Charlie declines until some muscle-bound chuckleheads assault him and warn him off. Changing his mind, he comes off his mountain and starts bicycling around LA after clues.
TV writer Gould’s good-natured humor ranges from showbiz satire to Charlie’s bemused takes on modern urban life. And his characters are great, including volatile, charming Pinch and Charlie’s new friend, a kindergarten teacher who (as they so often do) moonlights as a porno star.
“The Bouncer” (Mysterious, 224 pp., $25), by David Gordon, also gets it right.
Joe Brody, a man of hidden talents, is skating through life as a club bouncer. He’s invited to join an upcoming weapons heist, but when it goes south Joe lands in a plot that might be summarized as “Gangsters vs. Terrorists.” Along the way, an alluring FBI agent, Donna Zamora, keeps popping up and … well, sparks fly. Gordon’s plot is baggy, but his sharp characters and quick wit save the day.
On the local front: Seattle-area writer A.J. Banner’s “After Nightfall” (Lake Union, 243 pp., $24.95), like her outstanding “The Twilight Wife,” is compelling psychological suspense with a strong Pacific Northwest setting.
How well do we know friends, and how far can we trust them? During a seaside party, Marissa Parlette spies her fiancé, Nathan Black, blatantly flirting with Lauren Eklund, a childhood friend she recently reconnected with. The next morning, Lauren is found dead on the beach and Nathan becomes a prime suspect. Despairing and baffled, Marissa is driven to examine the complex tangles of Lauren’s and Nathan’s respective pasts.
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