Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Dialogue, narration drive police story

'Bite' avoids cliche with straightforward focus on action

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cops on the edge. So many rogue blue knights are working literary mean streets these days that bookstores can hardly contain them to mystery shelves. They've crossed the line, going from crime fiction to parody - and there's no turning back.

Weaned on violence, nurtured by booze and bullets (and I dare say, broads), these dark and brooding archetypes have suffered every plot contrivance: betrayal (how could you do it?), dead partners (avoidable, if only), bungling supervisors (this time he was on his own) and the unforgiving system (sure, he hates it, but it's the only one we've got). There hasn't been a true original since Lloyd Hopkins clambered out of James Ellroy's deeply disturbed imagination.

Which might explain why I like Luther Ewing. He's not on the edge, he's way past it.

Half black, half Vietnamese, Ewing doesn't agonize over life-and-death decisions, he joneses for them. He doesn't drown his problems in alcohol, he confronts them. And if that means crossing the line, he doesn't first engage in somnambulant monologues, he just straps on an array of weaponry and gets the job done.

Author Michael Crow introduced Ewing in last year's relentless Red Rain, so named for the bloody spray of an arterial wound. The book's angry denouement had the feel of a ritual cleansing, an exorcism. As if Crow, a pseudonym for an unidentified award-winning novelist, was delivering a message to the literary world - and using Luther to wipe the slate of all those namby-pamby moralists who are trying to turn the pulp genre into a Sunday-school lesson.

Now Crow has brought alter-ego Ewing back in The Bite.

Ewing is still trying to come down from his one-man war against the Russian mob and settle back into his gig as a rural Baltimore County narcotics detective. Maintaining a low profile, the ex-Special Forces operative has been working the backwoods, hitting up hill-jacks for a line on new crank suppliers.

He's bored, restless and starting to yearn for heavy action when somebody shoots him in his suburban parking lot.

What he can't figure out is why they didn't finish the job; in Luther's world, that kind of sloppiness can't be forgiven. With much effort, Luther tries to quiet the revenge fantasies running through his head and undertakes a surveillance operation on a trailer in the woods behind a farmer's field. But when the bust turns into a wholesale slaughter, Luther finds himself crossing paths with a dangerous DEA agent, Francesca Russo, who has funny ideas about a future partnership.

Ewing is driven by sheer narrative force. His first-person account is lean, tough and often funny - with a total lack of pretense. "Somebody I never saw just popped a cap on Luther Ewing. Something is very, very wrong here ... It's supposed to be the other way around."

The dialogue crackles and propels the story forward with urgency and purpose that most mystery tales can't achieve.

But the book is not really much of a mystery. Like its predecessor, The Bite focuses on action rather than plot twists. In fact, the whole plot is pretty much summed up on the dust jacket, although any novice reader could see where the story is going from page 10. That doesn't make it bad, just different.

Instead of following a convoluted trail of clues, Crow hones in with laser precision on what is happening now, giving the story an immediacy that forces you to turn pages.

Don't expect to find the rich character development of Michael Connelly's crime dramas or the exquisite details of Dan Mahoney's carefully constructed police procedurals.

Crow does have a major love affair with ballistics. His knowledge of firearms and stuff that goes boom is enough to give Tom Clancy, David Morrell and Stephen Hunter muzzle-envy. And he has stocked Luther with ordnance for every available situation.

Ewing at times comes off as a composite sketch who is better defined by the characters that surround him. Those include: his Italian partner, Joseph Cutrone, better known as Ice Box for his sheer size; sex crimes investigator Annie Mason, who is Luther's secret love even as he pursues an unending line of college coeds in go-nowhere relationships; his father, Gunny (as in Gunnery Sergeant); and Helen, his latest coed, who is beginning to carve a niche for herself in Luther's weird little world.

Whether Crow is just having a good time or actually making a statement, one thing's for certain. He and Luther Ewing are loaded for bear. Check that. Armed with parkerized pistol-gripped Moss-

berg pumps with ghost-ring sights and loaded with flechettes darts, 20 to a shell, bear is the last thing on their minds.


E-mail ranglen@enquirer.com

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