By Lawrence Block
Morrow, 295 pp., $24.95
By Phillip Margolin
HarperCollins, 314 pp., $25.95
The Highly Effective Detective
By Richard Yancey
St. Martins, 288 pp., $23.95
Take a journey deep into noir laced with wry humor with Lawrence Block's ``Hit Parade." This is less a novel than a series of stories about John Keller (change a vowel and you get ``killer"), each recounting a professional hit. This is the third book featuring Keller for the prolific Block, better known for his Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series.
The stories are wry and funny, and unfold in layers by means of a herky-jerky technique of blackouts, flash-forwards, and flash backs that only a writer this skilled can pull off.
The book opens with Keller attending a baseball game. His target is Memphis Tarpon designated hitter Floyd Turnbull. Keller goes to Memphis and then waits, game after game, watching Turnbull approach a record 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. When Turnbull finally hits his record-breaking homer, Keller observes in typical understated fashion, ``The guy was a dead man hitting."
Talk about a loner. When Keller gets lonely on the long drive home after a hit (he avoids flying after 9/11), he buys himself a stuffed dog for companionship. Once, Keller tells us, he had a girlfriend and a dog. Now the only human he relates to is Dot, his ``dispatcher." He sips ice d tea on her porch in a picture of suburban domesticity after each job, and plays straight man to her wisecracks.
Despite his profession, Keller has his own set of rules: never connect with victims, never connect with the person who hires you, don't kill in your hometown, don't kill animals. But each new job takes him across another of these boundaries.
Is Keller a sociopath? By the end, the answer is pretty clear. But as deep and dark as he gets, Keller leaves even his victims laughing.
Villainy is far more nuanced in Phillip Margolin's ``Proof Positive." Its premise: What if the criminalist -- the specialist who collects and examines the physical evidence -- is crooked? After all, in today's high-tech world of ballistics testing, DNA analysis, and computer-driven fingerprint matching, only a professional criminalist could cheat the system.
At the start of the novel, down-at-the-heels defense attorney Doug Weaver witnesses the execution of his client, Raymond Hayes. Weaver persuaded Hayes to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming forensic evidence -- Hayes's fingerprint s were lifted from the murder weapon that killed his mother. Weaver's gamble that Hayes's ``spotless record would sway the jury in favor of life in the sentencing phase" turned out to be wrong.
Having ``found God" and forgiven his accusers, Hayes calmly faces death by lethal injection. For Weaver, the execution is excruciating; he is wracked by self-doubt as he watches life ebb from Hayes's body.
Weaver's next client is a psychotic homeless man, picked up on charges of failing to register as a sex crimes offender, once convicted of rape. Weaver gains the man's confidence and becomes convinced that he could never have committed rape. Weaver notices that the criminalist who prepared the evidence used to cement the rape charge against the homeless man also prepared the evidence that convicted Hayes of murder. Could evidence in both cases have been faked?
Margolin uses his background as a criminal defense attorney to create a thought-provoking insider's view of a criminal justice system that is as corruptible as the attorneys, judges, police officers, and criminalists who make it work.
Out of the noir and into the light with Teddy Ruzak, the rumpled Columbo -style sleuth in Richard Yancey's ``The Highly Effective Detective." He's a Knoxville, Tenn., security guard who grew up hooked on Sherlock Holmes and Encyclopedia Brown, a guy who got ejected from the police academy after failing the marksmanship tests.
But this is more than a guy who can't shoot straight. He can't think straight. ``I've got one of those free association-type brains, where my thoughts bump around like pinballs, and I often come off stupid in conversations because I've bounced about ten thousand miles from the spot where I should be."
When Teddy's mother dies, he takes his unexpected inheritance and sets up a detective agency. In walks his first client, a senior citizen who wants him to look into the ``murder" of a half-dozen goslings, hit by a black SUV.
The storytelling meanders. Teddy eats at his favorite diner; hires his favorite waitress, Felicia, to be his secretary; explores the intricacies of getting a PI license; watches as Krispy Kreme doughnuts roll off the conveyor belt. Frankly if I hadn't been stuck on an airplane with the book for five hours, I might never have gotten past page 30.
Good thing I stuck with it, because the book is full of wry humor, action, and plot twists. The excitement begins when Teddy connects the squashed geese with the disappearance of a wealthy businessman's wife. Soon Teddy finds himself in genuine peril on the hunt for a murderer.
In the end, the novel's biggest asset is quirky storyteller-sleuth Teddy Ruzak, a straight arrow and a good guy even if his brain runs zigzag.
Hallie Ephron is the author of ``Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style," nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.