The Barnes & Noble Review
T. Jefferson Parker at his most memorable and affecting in Red Light -- nominated for a 2001 Edgar Award for Best Novel -- which takes up the story begun so brilliantly in The Blue Hour. A gripping, if familiar, account of the hunt for a serial killer known as the Purse Snatcher, The Blue Hour transcended its generic origins through its clean, lucid style and its precise rendering of the evolving relationship between an unlikely pair of lovers: Merci Rayborn, a
feisty, ambitious young homicide detective from Orange County, California, and Tim Hess, an aging former homicide investigator who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
By the end of book, both Hess and the Purse Snatcher are dead, while Merci, pregnant with Hess’s child, is left alone to reassemble the shattered pieces of her life. By the time that Red Light opens, more than two years have gone by, and Merci’s life is still in a state of disarray. She loves her son, Tim Jr., with a primal ferocity, and
she continues to believe in the fundamental value of her career. But she is haunted by nightmares, consumed by guilt over her role in Hess’s death, and beset by a feeling of pervasive dread, the lingering aftermath of her own climactic encounter with Hess’s killer.
Two cases, eerily similar but separated in time by more than 30 years, dominate the narrative of Red Light. The first concerns the fatal shooting of an upscale call girl named Aubrey Whittaker, who is murdered in her apartment following a dinner date with an unidentified man. The second, older case also involves the murder of an Orange County prostitute. The victim, this time, was Patti Bailey, a low-rent hooker with known connections to biker gangs and to the violent world of small-time drug dealers. In 1969, Patti was shot to
death, her body abandoned in a local orange grove. No physical evidence -- gun, bullets, bloodstained clothes -- was ever located. No viable suspect was ever found. More than three decades later, the case is pulled, apparently at random, from the Unsolved File and given to Merci for a cursory reexamination.
The two murders ultimately connect in disturbing ways, each pointing to the possible criminal involvement of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. In the Aubrey Whittaker case, forensic reports indicate that Merci’s current lover -- a vice squad investigator named Mike McNally -- had been Aubrey’s dinner guest on the night of her death. Mike acknowledges this but claims that his motives -- and his relationship with Aubrey -- were innocent. Merci, feeling both angry and betrayed, commits a betrayal of her own, breaking into Mike’s
house and unearthing a cache of incriminating evidence that leads to his arrest.
In the Patti Bailey case, an anonymous letter leads Merci to another cache of evidence that points, in time, to the active participation of a number of the Sheriff’s Department’s most prominent figures. As she slowly recreates the fatal summer of 1969, a period marked by corruption, racial violence, and the pervasive influence of right-wing political organizations like the John Birch Society, Merci uncovers a tawdry story of blackmail, revenge, and twisted ambition in which a great many respected citizens voluntarily played a part. With a persistence as characteristic as her deep-seated anger, Merci follows both cases to their surprising conclusions,
learns the identity of more than one murderer, and discovers the secret that connects the deaths of two very different women.
As always, Parker gives us a tense, convoluted story that keeps the pages turning at a furious pace, with the story grounded in his scrupulous rendering of the emotional realities that dominate his characters’s lives. Merci, in particular, is a beautifully realized character, a valuable, intelligent woman marked by sorrow and driven by the dictates of a fierce, uncompromising integrity. Her increasing sense of the darkness at the heart of things is painfully reflected in the world around her: Her latest partner, Paul Zamorra, spends much of the novel watching helplessly as his wife is consumed by an inoperable brain tumor, deliberately echoing the central
events of an earlier Parker story, Summer of Fear.
The final product is a darkly effective novel that provides all of the traditional satisfactions of good suspense fiction, together with an uncommon degree of emotional depth and a highly personal vision of the tragic forces constantly at work in the world. Taken together, Parker's eight novels represent a distinctive contribution to the genre and deserve the attention of a large, discriminating readership. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
You might not have liked Aubrey Whittaker. She acted superior. She walked as if she were the most beautiful woman on Earth, which she wasn't. She didn't say very much. She was tall but wore heels anyway, and if she finally did say something, you felt like a driver getting a ticket. Her eyes were blue and infinitely disappointed in you. She was nineteen.
She let him come to her place again that night, something that had only happened once before. Strictly against policy. But he was different than the rest, different in ways that mattered. In her life she had learned to read men, who were as easy to understand as street signs: Caution, Yield, Stop. But did you ever really know one?
Aubrey had chosen a small black dress, hose with a seam up the back, heels with ankle straps and a string of pearls. No wig, just her regular hair, which was blond and cut short, sticking up like a boy's. The lipstick was apple red.
She made him dinner. She could only cook one thing well, so she cooked it. And a salad, rolls from the bakery, a pot of the good French roast coffee he liked, a dessert. Flowers in a squat round crystal vase that had cost a lot of money.
They sat across from each other at the small table. Aubrey gave D.C. the seat with the view of the Pacific. "D.C." was the abbreviation for Dark Cloud, the nickname she'd invented to capture his pessimism about human nature. It was an ironic nickname, too, because D.C. wasn't dark to look at, but light, with a broad, tanned face, a neat mustache, sharp eyes and a chunk of heavy blond hair that fell over his forehead like a schoolboy's. He was quick to smile, although it was usually a nervous smile. He was taller than her by a good three inches and strong as a horse, she could tell. He told stupid jokes.
She told him he could hang his gun on the chair, but he left it holstered tight against his left side, farther around his back than in the movies, the handle pointing out. Whatever, she thought. The idea of safety pleased her, made her feel compliant in a genuine way. Aubrey Whittaker rarely allowed herself a genuine feeling, couldn't always tell them from the ones she portrayed.
They talked. His eyes rarely strayed from her face, and they were always eager to get back. Hungry eyes. When dinner was over he sat there a moment, wiping the silverware with his napkin. He was fastidious. Then he left, at exactly the time he'd told her he'd leave. Off to see a man about a dog, he said. Another little joke of theirs.
At the door she put her arms around him and hugged him lightly, setting her chin against the top of his shoulder, leaning her head against his ear for just a moment. She could feel the tension coming off him like heat off a highway. She thought that the kind of guy she wanted would be a lot like D.C. Then she straightened and smiled and shut the door behind him. It was only ten minutes after ten.
She flipped on the kitchen TV to an evangelist, put the dishes in the sink and ran water over them. She watched a car roll out of the parking area below, brake lights at the speed bump. It might have been D.C.'s big, serious four-door or it might not have been.
Aubrey felt warm inside, like all her blood had heated up a couple of degrees, like she was just out of a hot bath or had just drank a big glass of red wine. She shook her head and smile lines appeared at the edges of her apple-red lips. It's just unbelievable, girl, she thought, what you've done with your life. Nineteen going on a hundred. You finally find a guy you can halfway stand, he trembles when you touch him through his clothes and you let him drive away.
Oh that you would kiss me, with the kisses of your mouth!
Song in the Bible.
I sucked you off in a theater.
Song on the radio.
Has everything changed, or nothing?
She rinsed the dishes, dried her hands and worked in some lotion. The fragrance was of lavender. Through the window she saw the black ocean and the pale sand and the white rush where the water broadened onto the beach then receded.
In the middle of the living room Aubrey stood and looked out at the water and the night. Thinking of the different shades of black, she pried off her high heels, then got down on all fours. Balance. She could smell the lavender. From there she was eye level to the arm of the black leather sofa.
Tentatively she placed her left hand out. Tentatively she raised her right knee and slid it forward. Then the hard part, the transfer of weight to her other hand and the moment of peril as the left knee came up to support her.
She wavered just a little, but when her left leg settled beneath her she was okay and very focused because she had to repeat the whole complex procedure again. Her doctor friend, the shrink, had advised her to do this. She had never learned. She had walked at eleven months.
Her doctor friend had said that for an adult to develop fully, to form certain concepts, especially mathematical ones, she needed to know how to crawl.
Then she heard the knock at the door. A flash of embarrassment went through her as she realized what she was: a six-foot woman in a short black dress crawling across her living room through the scent of lavender.
She sprung up and walked over. "Who's there?"
"Just me again, Aubrey--"
It was a little hard to hear, with all the cars roaring by on Coast Highway.
"--Your Dark Cloud."
She flipped the outside light switch and looked through the peephole. The bug bulb must have finally burned out because all she saw was one corner of the apartment building across the alley laced with Christmas lights, and the tiny headlights out on Coast Highway, miniaturized in a fish-eye lens clouded with moisture. She hadn't replaced that bulb in months.
When she opened the door she was smiling because she half expected his return, because she knew he was in her control now. And because she was happy.
Then her smile died from the inside out and she formed her last thought: No.