Catfish Cafe

by Earl Emerson

Published by Ballantine Books

1998, Hardcover, 272 pages

ISBN 0345422023 



Rattlesnake Crossing

by J.A. Jance

Published by Avon Books

1998, Hardcover, 384 pages

ISBN 0380974991






Sleuths in Strange Lands

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


If there's one thing Earl Emerson has learned after publishing 16 novels (11 of them featuring his teetotaling, bicycle-riding Seattle private eye, Thomas Black), it's how to compose a snappy opening.

Luther Little drove dead bodies around Seattle the way some people drove pizzas, his primary mission, at least in his own mind, to make delivery before the goods got cold. Luther loved dead folks the way other people loved cats or guns or Elvis collectibles.

For Luther there was nothing as soothing as bagging inert bodies and hauling them to the mortuary; nothing as satisfying as dressing up in his high boots and black uniform to haul polished boxes to the cemetery in front of a queue of headlighted cars. Luther had been a Seattle cop, a cab driver, a sheet-metal worker, a coffee vendor, a janitor, a burglar, a chicken rancher, and a few things he was probably ashamed of; but as far as he was concerned, this was the best job he'd ever held. Every day Luther woke up hoping somebody had died.

The rest of this latest Black outing, Catfish Café, is delivered with equal brio. Hired by Little, an older African-American who was his first partner during their stint together with the Seattle Police Department, Black embarks on a search for Balinda Sands. She is Little's attractive daughter, as well as a former crack head and an eyewitness to the recent killing of a straight-laced, white school teacher named Benjamin Aldrich. But she hasn't been seen since Aldrich's bullet-creased corpse was found in her wrecked car at the bottom of an embankment. Before the cops nail a homicide rap on Balinda, Little wants Black to find out what really happened on the night of Aldrich's death -- and what connections, if any, there are between that murder, the long-ago theft of money from the Catfish Café in Seattle's Central District, and the discovery of nine 30-year-old birth certificates in Balinda's car.

Emerson, a lieutenant in the Seattle Fire Department and a resident of nearby North Bend, Washington, has an uneven skill at creating provocative plotlines. Solutions to most of the mysteries in Catfish Café can be sifted out long before its denouement, which occurs in an historic mountain railroad tunnel and is far more action-packed than it is believable. However, the author has a genuine talent for incorporating humor into his tales (much of the wit in Catfish spawned by Little's devotion to the dearly departed). And he deserves tremendous credit for developing this latest yarn within the minority-dominated milieu of Seattle's CD -- a neighborhood that is terra incognita even to most of the city's white natives. Emerson's African-American characters are sympathetic and ring true, especially in their dialogue and ambivalence toward cross-racial relationships.

Emerson was early on the scene with his Seattle gumshoe. Prior to 1985, when his first Black novel (The Rainy City) appeared, the town's marginally mean streets had been walked by only one series investigator (John Denson, who debuted in Oregon writer Richard Hoyt's 1980 Decoys). Since then, of course, Seattle has become a fashionable crime-fiction setting, with local wordsmiths as varied as K.K. Beck (Cold Smoked) and G.M. Ford (Slow Burn), and outsiders like Oregonian Stephen Greenleaf (Flesh Wounds) and LA resident Robert Crais (Indigo Slam), subjecting popular Seattle to fictional predators and pistol play. Yet Emerson's Black books have hardly been overshadowed; they continue to succeed and sometimes excite (as in the case of The Portland Laugher and The Million-Dollar Tattoo, either of which deserves the title of Best Private Eye Novel Set in Seattle).

* * *

Similarly well recognized in this field is J.A. Jance, though her series about an ex-alcoholic Seattle Police homicide detective named J.P. Beaumont has seemed for some time to be losing its spirit and creativity. Much more intriguing have been her concurrently penned stories about a widowed county sheriff working the Arizona-Mexico borderlands, the sixth of which is Rattlesnake Crossing.

Once again, we find insurance agent-turned-Cochise County lawman Joanna Brady endeavoring to balance her professional and personal lives. The principal threat to that balance this time is a young serial killer who commits the further indignity of scalping his victims. If that's not bad enough news, this murderer may also have ransacked a gun dealer's shop and made off with high-powered sniper rifles. Trying to put an end to these tragedies and prevent a Ruby Ridge-like stand-off, Brady must contend with a right-wing rancher on whose property most of the killings have taken place; a newspaper gossip columnist who thinks Brady can't handle her job; a delightfully obnoxious medical examiner; and a bar owner who is trying deliberately to get closer to Brady, a woman still in mourning after the demise of her policeman husband.

Jance tends to clutter her Brady adventures with secondary plots that go nowhere and tertiary characters who promise to become more dimensional and never do. But as with Catfish Café and so many other crime novels, Rattlesnake benefits from being set in unfamiliar territory, where the detective protagonist acts both as a guide to the reader and a protector of the common order. Brady's Arizona desert beat, where she regularly confronts a salmagundi of bigots, pedophiles, overzealous New Agers, and Native Americans seeking to maintain at least a semblance of their traditional cultures provides author Jance with a rich and often bizarre framework for her fiction. And she employs that framework deftly, her Brady tales well-paced and credible police procedurals that stand in tribute to the works of Tony Hillerman -- who made Southwestern American backcountry mysteries chic -- but are also distinctive enough to expand that subgenre.

Twenty years ago, when U.S. regional crime fiction was in its infancy, critics wondered whether books set outside of New York or Los Angeles could compete. Certainly Emerson and Jance have proved that they can. | July 27, 1998


Seattle resident J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine and editor of The Rap Sheet.