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On dark streets where justice is not a given

Prior Bad Acts
By Tami Hoag
Bantam, 375 pp., $26

By Sara Gran
Putnam, 243 pp., $21.95

A Hole in Juan
By Gillian Roberts
Ballantine, 256 pp., $23.95

Tami Hoag seems perfectly comfortable burrowing into the heads of some pretty nasty characters, but readers of her new book should be prepared to be thoroughly creeped out. ''Prior Bad Acts" opens with the grisly aftermath of murder -- Marlene Haas and her two young children have been tortured and killed. We witness the scene from inside the mind of wacko drifter Karl Dahl just before the police arrest him.

The story continues in an antiseptic courtroom where Judge Carey Moore, a former hard-nosed prosecutor, struggles to be fair and evenhanded. She rules to suppress Karl's ''prior bad acts" -- criminal trespass, indecent exposure, and other relatively minor offenses -- that the defense attorney insists are unrelated to charges of murder.

The consequences are swift and brutal. The ruling unleashes an immediate firestorm of public outrage, Carey is brutally attacked, and Karl breaks out of jail. Detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska, neither of whom has much sympathy for any bleeding-heart liberal judge, investigate.

Hoag makes the reader privy to multiple viewpoints: the intrepid detectives', the besieged judge's, the escaped fugitive's, plus that of Stan Dempsey, a detective who has gone off the deep end after investigating the Haas murders. In tried-and-true thriller fashion, it's like watching two freight trains barrel ahead on a collision course.

Despite a surfeit of bad guys (is homicidal mania contagious?), the story works, and Hoag's cliffhanger scene endings and jump cuts leave the reader panting and turning the pages as fast as possible.

In Hoag's novel, as in most other popular crime fiction, justice comes out on top. Not so in Sara Gran's dark novel ''Dope." In this slim volume, the landscape of New York's 1950s Greenwich Village is murky, the language is spare, and the narrative stays in the first person, firmly planted in the head of Josephine ''Joe" Flannigan.

Joe grew up in a chaotic, impoverished household in Hell's Kitchen. She ran off with a boyfriend, only to descend into drug addiction and squalor. She's long been estranged from her younger sister Shelley, also once a drug addict. Shelley, who has changed her name and shed her past like an unwanted skin, is a successful fashion model on the verge of a breakthrough in her acting career.

Though Joe has been clean for the last two years, she hasn't gone straight. She makes her living stealing from exclusive shops on Fifth Avenue, then returns to the shadowy back streets, flophouses, and bars that once swallowed her up to turn her heists into cash.

A wealthy suburban couple offer Joe $1,000 to find their 19-year-old daughter, Nadine Nelson, who dropped out of an elite college and is out on the streets now, shooting dope and turning tricks. Joe can't turn down the job, which looks like easy money, and soon she embarks on what turns into a labyrinthine journey into her own past where hopes and betrayals seem doomed to repeat themselves.

The movie version of this book would have to be shot in more black than white, and from a single camera, to evoke a moody, claustrophobic tale. The ending is a shocker with none of the pat resolution that most mystery novels deliver. Strongly recommended for readers with a taste for noir. (See ''Shelf Life," Page C6, for more about ''Dope.")

For those who prefer a walk on the tamer side, there's Gillian Roberts's ''A Hole in Juan," the latest in a long-running series featuring high school English teacher Amanda Pepper. Surely one of the most likable protagonists in crime fiction, Amanda has a wry sense of humor that keeps her from taking herself too seriously. This is a teacher who manages to coax poetry and moral outrage from the otherwise self-obsessed or laconic students at Philly Prep -- in short, the kind of teacher we'd all wish for our children.

It's a few days before Halloween, and Amanda is worried about some of her seniors. ''Something more serious was in the air, a tension, or subliminal rumbling," she observes. These amorphous feelings are reinforced when she finds anonymous notes and odd bits of troubling graffiti scribbled on school bulletin boards.

Her worries are echoed by a particularly unctuous new chemistry teacher, Juan Angel Reyes, whose habit of wearing monogrammed shirts has earned him the unfortunate nickname of ''Dr. Jar." Chemicals have gone missing, someone has poured acid into his briefcase, and Juan is convinced that the malicious pranks are the handiwork of the same group of seniors whose behavior troubles Amanda. Soon there is more serious vandalism, and Amanda finds notes containing threats of worse.

Despite increasingly dire indications that something very bad is about to happen, Amanda fails to share her concerns with the police. In a kinder and gentler time, Roberts might have gotten away with this; but in our post-Columbine world, it stretches credibility to the breaking point when she doesn't raise the alarm.

Still, the novel entertains. The plot moves along briskly, and portraits of a romance-addled school secretary and a bombastic principal provide comic relief. You can almost smell the dirty gym socks and hair gel in the air at Philly Prep, and the vulnerable kids trying to act tough are heartbreaking and believable. High school was never this good -- or dangerous.

Hallie Ephron's ''Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style" has been nominated for an Edgar Award. Contact her through

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