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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Noah Masterson and Dorthy Cole.

FEBRUARY 15, 1999: 

The Big Bad City
by Ed McBain (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $25)

Ed McBain has written more than 80 novels, kids' books, teleplays and screenplays. Writing under his real name, Evan Hunter, he has another 20 books to his credit. A guy who writes that much must have some serious inner demons to deal with. Either that, or he is a hack.

The Big Bad City is, by my count, the 49th book in the "87th Precinct" series, which began in 1956. The precinct is located in a fictional city that McBain is always careful not to name, although, because of its size, proximity to other American cites and general milieu, the setting is all too obviously New York. Why doesn't he just say it's New York? Because by placing his characters in the land of make-believe, he can make New York even sleazier than it is.

The main story involves two cops' investigation into the past of a murdered nun with breast implants. Yep, a murdered nun with breast implants. Through their research, the partners--Carella the Italian guy and Brown the black guy--meet all sorts of weirdos: angry comedians, washed-up rock stars and more nuns, to name a few.

A meandering subplot that occasionally interrupts the main story is the tale of a burglar dubbed The Cookie Boy--a guy who lost his pinkie finger in Desert Storm and now leaves a plate of cookies in the homes that he robs. The Cookie Boy gets into trouble when he bursts in on a woman engaged in intimate relations with her delivery boy. Delivery boy, meet Cookie Boy. Cookie boy, meet delivery boy. Yawn.

On top of these contrivances, Detective Carella is, unbeknownst to him, being stalked by the man who murdered his father (presumably in an earlier "87th Precinct" novel). With the obligatory red herrings and astonishing revelations, everything is tidily wrapped up by book's end.

McBain is known for his characters' adherence to real police procedure. It is probably our nation's cops who keep him on the bestseller list. McBain can write well--he's certainly had enough practice--but he approaches his books in the same way that police approach a case: with slow, methodical detachment. (NM)

Black Gold
by Billie J. Cook (Vantage Press, paper, $11.95)

This quirky little book follows the tone and progress of everyday existence. Each character is so concerned with the trivialities that real life puts in the way of profundity or self-knowledge that they repeatedly miss out on the big things happening all around them.

The story--either a memoir in the shape of a novel or a novel that reads like a memoir--follows the oil-drilling career of a young man and his family. At least, he thinks he's including the family, but through fire, disaster and death, the novel's real focus becomes the poor communication between two people who are deeply in love. Jack and Alice never stop caring for each other, but they give up consulting one another about things that are crucial to both of them, both too hung up on getting by.

The author's sense for detail tells the story better than any of the serious incidents that occur. A drive through the mountains yields descriptions, not of scenery or philosophical viewpoints, but of the food the family plans to eat in the near future. Later, as Jack frets about getting his wife alone to really talk, Alice busies herself keeping track of their children. It is this unpretentious emphasis on minor details that rings most true, more than the long expository conversations or the incidental characters.

This is a world where two pregnant women who move next door to each other just naturally become best friends. What more does anybody need in common? We never find out their true similarities or differences, because in the end, it doesn't matter. They are the kind of perfect match that you find in your neighborhood, not in a psychological case study.

A book this length could do with fewer characters to keep track of, but so could the local PTA. I would like to see Cook write something focused even more minutely on the distractions of taking care of a family. Jack and Alice do a good job physically, but emotionally they rely on each other blindly. Conversely, it might be nice to see some specifics, maybe in an actual memoir. This book is set around the southwestern states, including New Mexico, but too many of the locations aren't named, leaving an atmosphere that comes off as a bit generic.(DC)

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