Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and the Matrons

Sex, drugs, and... blue bloods? Hardly the trilogy most of us think of, is it? No, we’re much more apt to equate sex and drugs with good times (too-good times, actually), uninhibited behavior, and excess--an excess of pleasures of the flesh. Blue bloods, on the other hand, bring to mind historic mansions, butlers, and Bentleys--an excess, to be sure, but this one of showiness, of the outward trappings of immense wealth and privilege.
And yet, author P.J. Parrish manages to combine those two seemingly disparate themes--the lurid tawdriness of sex and drugs, and the power and prestige of old money--to striking effect in her latest novel, The Little Death, set in Palm Beach, Florida and its environs, circa 1989.
Parrish is actually a pair of sisters--Kristy and Kelly--now living in Florida and Mississippi, respectively, after having grown up in Michigan. (All three states have featured in their books, and it’s clear that the women have a real feel and genuine love for them all.) TLD is their tenth novel to date featuring ex-cop/current P.I. Louis Kincaid, and it proves this duo’s collective talents are as strong as ever.

Parrish’s Louis is a compelling, complex character who lugs some hefty baggage around with him. After enduring a rough early childhood, he wound up in foster care and was eventually adopted (only to be transplanted far from his birth home). He got in trouble as a young adult, and did a brief stint in jail. He finally managed to straighten himself out and chose a career as a cop. 
Troubles continued to plague him, though, so more recently he has struck out on his own as a part-time private investigator/part-time beach bum. His relations with his family (his birth one and his adoptive one) are complicated. The (now) long-distance romantic relationship he’s been trying to keep afloat is floundering. And, he’s a young black man, so he all too often encounters just the sort of racial stereotyping you’d (unfortunately) expect. (I love that he isn’t played as A BLACK MAN, but rather, as A MAN, who happens to be black... just like he happens to have a cat, and happens to drive an old pony car.) Louis isn’t a happy and contented fellow; there’s always a sense he’s in a sort of stasis, waiting to see if something better comes along... but not going to exert himself too much to make sure that something does. He is an imperfect character, and as such, he’s very real--not to mention likable and sympathetic--in all of his imperfect glory.
There is one constant in Louis’ life, though--his friend, retired Miami homicide detective, Mel Landeta. Having met (and bonded) after Louis retreated to the little beachfront place he currently inhabits on tiny Captiva Island, Mel functions as both sounding board and sometimes-work partner. Theirs is gradually becoming a more-dependent friendship, too, as Louis helps Mel deal with the increasingly-debilitating visual impairment (retinitis pigmentosa) from which the older man suffers (which adds an interesting--and poignant--touch to the friendship). And, as friends are wont to do, Mel occasionally gets Louis into things which Louis wishes he hadn’t.
Such is the case in The Little Death. Mel persuades Louis to drive him to Palm Beach, where an old acquaintance of Mel’s has just been placed in jail on a murder charge. One problem is that this isn’t just any murder charge, but a horribly-gruesome one--the beheading of a handsome young man. Another problem is that their new client is a gentle, jovial, middle-aged gay man, who earns his living as a “walker” (basically, a platonic companion who squires wealthy ladies to events their husbands won’t attend), living in a conservative (when it comes to appearances, anyway) Southern town in 1989. The townspeople’s sympathies, needless to say, do NOT lie with poor Reggie Kent, currently being held on circumstantial evidence (he’s gay! he lived with the murder victim! they’d had a public argument shortly before!) for the vicious murder of his young friend. Since the police force takes its orders from the wealthy residents, no one is looking for an alternative murderer, or for motive (beyond what the prejudiced, privileged folks are determined to believe, of course). Reggie is not of “their set”, you see, but rather, a hanger-on; as such, no one wants to dig too deeply or question the “evidence” upon which the police have already made up their minds.
Enter Mel and Louis. Not even sure there’s a case to be made--yet firmly convinced that mild-mannered Reggie couldn’t possibly have swung a sword or big knife with such force and such hatred to behead another human being--they resign themselves to helping out the poor sad sack that is Reggie. And, the going is just as rough as they imagine; the police want no part in helping them look for other evidence or any motives. (In fact, the police are such sticklers--and so utterly bound by the whims of the snobbish inhabitants--that they not only have on the books, but also enforce, an Ugly Car Law... which insulting fine just so happens to be levied on Louis’ dusty old Mustang while it’s parked at the curb.) Nearly all of Reggie’s uber-wealthy women friends/clients refuse to support him. Their task seems hopeless.
Eventually, Louis and Mel happen upon an old dowager--an absolute hoot, Margery is a good-time gal from the flapper era, who downs gin and “shampoo” like they were water or tea, and rattles merrily all alone in her impossibly-huge mansion, save for her four pugs and her deaf old butler--who not only believes in Reggie (and is willing to pay the detectives’ expenses, something the strapped-for-cash Reg can hardly do from the county jail), but also knows all the dirt about everyone who means anything in Palm Beach. Of course, there’s just one itsy-bitsy problem (isn’t there always?)--she refuses to rat on her friends or possibly incriminate them by airing their dirty laundry.
Knowing that Margery’s font of knowledge is their only hope--particularly since none of their other ideas or leads are panning out--they keep on her, until it snaps into place one day that both Reggie’s dead friend and a young gardener who went missing five years before shared the same physical characteristics. Finally, Louis and Mel have a legitimate trail to follow.
From that point, the story only gets better (and it was already “unputdownable”, so getting better is no small feat). Louis, Mel, and one lone policeman who (finally) steps up to the plate and decides to do the right thing, travel all over the Palm Beach area. The trail leads them to mansions owned by wealthy, unhappily-married women to the home of a U.S. Senator, from the tiny one-bedroom apartment of an illegal Mexican gardener to a sprawling livestock ranch. They visit exotic flower shops and antique weapons dealers; they contemplate artwork. They think about the nature of sex, and the different roles men and women play. They look into events from 30 years in the past. Every answer elicits new questions... until one night, everything comes into focus. The answer becomes clear--and that answer is an ugly, scary, and surprising one. Most importantly, though, it is utterly believable and realistic; I think the events would play out in real life just as they did in the story, given the same set of circumstances. In the end, it is that sense of truth and honesty--both with the characters and with the situations the authors place them in--that make this book, and this whole series, so very satisfying to read.
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

No comments:

Post a Comment