By Earl Emerson

Ballantine, July 1998, 290 pp., $5.99

Reviewed by Tom Kreitzberg (10/98)

Ten books into a series, a mystery novelist can assume that most of the people who have read the first nine are going to go right on reading them. To capture new readers, though, the book has to offer something else, something more than a mystery driving a plot. With the Shamus- nominated DECEPTION PASS, author Earl Emerson shows that his Thomas Black, P.I., series still has what it takes to reward the long-time readers and draw in the new.

Black and his wife, lawyer Kathy Birchfield, are hired by Seattle millionaire philanthropist Lainie Smith to help her deal with a blackmailer, who has been demanding weekly payments of two thousand dollars. Starting with the license plate of the car used to pick up one payment, Black soon learns that the reason Smith is being blackmailed, which she refuses to discuss, has something to do with the brutal murder of four people in a beach house near Deception Pass State Park seventeen years earlier. According to the police, only one person -- Charles Groth, who was executed several months before the story opens -- was responsible, but Groth himself always insisted he was with a young woman, who did the killings herself.

The moral difficulty Black has when Smith admits to being a passive witness of Groth's murders -- challenging enough, considering events in Black's own past -- are made worse when, a few days after he mistakenly tells her the name of the blackmailer, he finds the blackmailer shot dead. But if Smith did have him killed, then who is behind the latest demand for one and a half million dollars?

The novel, which moves along at a good pace to a satisfying if not startling conclusion, is able to rise above a number of cliches of P.I. fiction. There is the wise-cracking private eye, the antagonistic homicide detective, the bantering wife, the deceptive client. But Black's wisecracks aren't meant to show how tough he is; throughout the book, he indulges his somewhat childish sense of life, and his humor is an important part of that. The cop who dislikes him doesn't play a large enough role to become tiresome, and it's refreshing to read about a husband and wife in a mystery who enjoy each other's company and whose entertaining conversations advance, rather than pad, the story.

It is with the deceptive client, though, that DECEPTION PASS becomes most interesting. Lainie Smith was a wild and rebellious teenager (until the murders), a quiet and reserved college student, a millionaire by her mid-twenties, and a renowned philanthropist -- "Mother Teresa with a bankroll" -- in her mid-thirties. She admits to witnessing the killings, while denying involvement and offering no satisfactory explanation for why she did nothing to stop them. Every time she tells her story, however, it changes, and still inconsistencies remain. For Black -- and for the reader -- these raise very important questions about her culpability, her trustworthiness, and her character. What really happened in that beach house? And, even granting the most sympathetic interpretation of the facts, how much responsibility does Smith bear?

These questions, and the underlying ones about the nature of cowardice and heroism, are left only partially answered. This is how Emerson should leave them, too, since they provide the theme that, with its brisk plot and entertaining characters, elevates DECEPTION PASS above the run-of-the-mill private eye novels and make it a worthy continuation of, and an enticing introduction to, the Thomas Black series.

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