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October 18, 2002

Shrink Rap
Robert B. Parker
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002
Rating: 3.6
Juggling three different mystery series is bound to take its toll, even on one of the acknowledged heavyweights of the genre. And so it is that with Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker's third novel centering on female Boston P.I. Sunny Randall, Parker returns to overly familiar thematic waters. Randall, an engaging and likable character despite Parker's sometimes self-conscious attempts to write in how he perceives a female's point of view, isn't exactly Spenser (Parker's longtime alter ego) in a skirt, but she exhibits personality traits familiar to fans of Parker's other work. She's trapped in a codependent, ambiguous relationship with her former spouse -- much like Jesse Stone of Death in Paradise. She has serious issues about her mother (moms never come off well in Parker novels, particularly A Catskill Eagle and A Crimson Joy). And she comes with the patented Parker "trouble with authority" personality trait. But as the title implies, Shrink Rap relies heaviest of all on psychotherapy, a prominent presence in Parker's other two series. Rap concerns Sunny's attempt to help famous romantic novelist Melanie Joan Hall shake free of a persistent and unsettling stalker -- Hall's ex-husband, psychiatrist John Melvin. Along the way, she enters therapy herself, uncovering a link between her strained parental relationships and her passive-aggressive relationship with ex-husband Richie, who's currently getting serious with someone else. The scheme in which Sunny catches Melvin is a bit preposterous, and her fling with a Hollywood agent feels like a tacked-on afterthought. But Parker manages to sustain a certain level of mood, suspense and characterization throughout, and makes the all-too-human Sunny a warmly sympathetic character in the process. Shrink Rap is boilerplate Parker, a far cry from his compelling 2001 Wyatt Earp novel Gunman's Rhapsody. But it's better boilerplate than he's delivered in some time.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 12, 2002

The Killing Kind
John Connolly
Atria, 2002
Rating: 4.1
John Connolly, the masterful author of detective mystery/thriller hybrids Every Dead Thing and Dark Hollow, has earned comparisons (including one by this writer) to Thomas Harris, whose The Silence of the Lambs was repeatedly held up as a forebear to Every Dead Thing. But with The Killing Kind, Connolly establishes himself more as the hard-boiled (and extremely unlikely) love child of Dennis Lehane and Stephen King. In the process, he displays an uncanny knack for turning plotlines mined with potentially disastrous clichés into credibly effective elements of tension-building storytelling. His hero, private detective Charlie "Bird" Parker, has a strange ability to commune with the spirits of murder victims, a Sixth Sense-ian contrivance that Connolly uses only sparingly and to solid effect. And his antagonist in Kind, Elias Pudd, is painted as a tall, spindly villain straight out of Charles Dickens with a bit of King's Needful Things thrown in. But in Connolly's hands, Pudd is as menacing and horrific a nemesis as Harris' Hannibal Lecter, and the vague comic-book trappings of his appearance and his calling card (a love for deadly venomous spiders, and also for using same as an instrument of torture and murder) prove chilling, whereas in other hands -- say, James Patterson's -- they'd simply be embarrassing. The story that brings Bird and Pudd together is a solid enough one, with plenty of the requisite twists and turns, although the reader can guess Pudd's true identity distressingly early on. Connolly's writing isn't perfect -- he relies too heavily on gore (decapitated heads, crucifixions) for shock value, and sloppily allows Bird to "show off" the author's intense research, as if the detective just happened to be an expert in every field under the sun. But it's good enough to render The Killing Kind a gripping, cinematic page-turner with real literary heft.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 26, 2002

Lullaby

Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2002

Rating: 3.7

Lullaby has been described as maverick Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's version of your standard popcorn thriller novel, and it does sport perhaps his most conventional plot to date. But in its all-too-literary pacing, characterization and insights, Lullaby betrays its higher aspirations. In fact, Palahniuk strives so hard to make sure we get his message -- regarding the deadening, diverting impacts of television, noise and our own pasts -- that, like Fight Club's Tyler Durden, he hits us over the head a few too many times. The plot concerns a shell of a widowed journalist who stumbles onto an ancient "culling song," a ritual poem with the power to kill its target. In his quest to track down all remaining copies of the poem, in hopes of staving off a world where suspicious noise and thought are prohibited, protagonist Carl Streator forms an unlikely alliance -- and nuclear family -- with a trio of damaged, deluded and similarly destructive souls. Destruction is a key theme: Haunted house realtor Helen Hoover Boyle enjoys defacing priceless antiques, while wannabe eco-terrorist Oyster unravels the fabric of society with newspaper ads threatening class-action lawsuits against random, innocent establishments. Streator, meanwhile, takes his directionless anguish over having accidentally murdered his wife and child out on model replicas of houses, malls and churches. There's also a paramedic who visits his own frustrations on a different kind of model -- he kills fashion models before enjoying post-mortem sex. Great characters and set-up, but Palahniuk often spells out what we're better off inferring for ourselves, and rushes events to a sloppy anti-climax. Still, an intriguing premise (oddly reminiscent, in its execution, of Nicholson Baker's The Fermata) and a fantastical framing device -- and Palahniuk's sharp, brutal prose style -- make Lullaby an engrossing meditation on death and the inevitable corruption that comes with any kind of power.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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