Friday, March 12, 2010

L.A. Boneyard By P.A. Brown

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by MLR Press
Purchase at

For the record, I only review books I like. If I don't like it, I don't mention it. So, you can be sure before you go any further that I liked this first rate police procedural by Pat Brown, albeit with some reservations.

A rock solid plot and mostly brisk pacing keep the pages turning. LAPD detective David Laine is confronted with a pair of bodies buried in Griffith Park, the start of a particularly grisly murder investigation that take the detective from high rise elegance to ghetto drug-slums, with all kinds of stops in between. Brown's grasp of police procedure is awesome, you'd almost think she'd been there, done that, and she brings The City of the Angels so vividly to life it made this old Angeleno homesick for a burger at Tommy's. Both lend the story a terrific sense of believability, as does a fine ear for dialogue.

On the personal side, David's domestic partner, Chris, is in an accident and then out of town, leaving David pretty much on his own for a while. Not a good time for it, either, as David's new detective partner, sexy Jairo, is coming on to him like gangbusters. David loves Chris, and he wants to be faithful, but he's a guy, and there's an old saying about a stiff willy and its lack of conscience. It isn't long before Jairo has David's willy stiff far beyond the point of clear thinking. Like Jimmy Carter, David is lusting in his heart and in no time Chris is sniffing the situation out and having hizzy fits.

The sexual tension between the two policemen is achingly real, in large part because their characters are brilliantly drawn. David's domestic situation is a bit less convincing, because Chris is not so likeable, though that may be partly my personal aversion to a certain type of gay male, the hizzy fit throwers. In which case the author has made him real enough for me to dislike him, so maybe that counts. And, since the novel is mostly plot driven rather than character driven, Chris's actions generally serve to further the plot. So, he obediently goes out of town when needed or has those fits for no better reason than to ratchet up the tension for David and Jairo. Hey, it works, but it left this reader rooting for super cool Jairo, which may not have been the intended goal.

The mostly fine writing sparkles, but there are problems, too. The Dreaded Spell Check Disease, for one, which leaves the book, like so many today, littered with wrong words: Poured for pored, and plateau for tableau, e.g. There's not much of a cure for the disease, either, except greater care. Maybe a sharp-eyed beta reader? But, the truth is, many of these mistakes will go unnoticed by readers, too. The disease is unfortunately epidemic.

Worse by far is the Curse of the Dangling "He". Worse because, ideally, a novel is like a dream shared by author and reader. One wants the reader to forget he's reading a book, and "live" the story. But there's an abundance of those danglers here, and every time I have to stop and reread a paragraph to figure out who's speaking or doing what, I'm yanked out of the spell. Alas, with practice we perfect our mistakes as well as our virtues, which is to say, this is a writing habit that tends to take over if not weeded out of one's literary garden.

Less critical (but still too important for a writer this good not to get better at it) are an abundance of jarring transitions from one scene or setting to another. This too simply requires paying a bit more attention when shifting gears. Yes, it's extra work. Writing is easy. Writing well takes effort.

The reader will find as he nears the ending, that there is an unnecessary coda, the nature of which I won't divulge, but the story actually stops about five pages before the book does, and the reader can also with no great loss.

These are a writer's kind of complaints, however. They matter only in the sense that they keep a good author from being that much better. They are not likely consciously to effect most readers, who will find this a very enjoyable read, and who will almost certainly plow through it as I did in one sitting, turning the pages steadily to the end.


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