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From Barnes & NobleThe 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).