by Patricia Cornwell, © 2008 by Cornwell Enterprises, Inc.
G. P. Putnam’s sons, publisher; hardback, 180 pp
If you are looking for a quick beach read you might want to try The Front. It is not your usual murder mystery. In fact, the actual murder is a cold case that doesn’t bring the traditional who-dunnit thrill because the answer to that isn’t the point.
Cornwell built this story on the characters from her novel At Risk. Win Garano, an intelligent, thorough detective, is a Massachusetts state investigator. He is an interesting character: a very handsome and capable man of mixed race (father black, mother Italian) whose father was a poet who taught at Harvard. Win, however, has a reading problem that kept him out of college. The strategies he uses to cover it will be familiar to anyone who has ever taught school.
Win is assigned to work with Monique Lamont, a district attorney who, in the hands of an author less capable than Cornwell, would be simply a caricature of an ambitious, grasping, ruthless, man-eating woman. Ms. Cornwell furnishes Lamont with a childhood and a later trauma that goes pretty far in explaining some of her neuroses. Her ethics are definitely askew, but while Garano finds himself resenting and disliking her, he nonetheless respects her intelligence and abilities — and she is his boss.
Lamont is brilliant but megalomaniac, and it is her political and personal ambitions and contrivances that involve Win Garano in the story. He must tread a careful line between investigating thoroughly but revealing little, protecting not only his own reputation, but an organization that Lamont finds infuriating. This is The FRONT (Friends, Resources, Officers Networking Together), a group of area police departments that have agreed to share information and equipment in an effort to become more independent of the state police.
A key member of FRONT is a police officer with whom Win becomes romantically involved. Her name is “Stump,” a sobriquet that has nothing to do with the fact that she wears a prosthetic leg (and try to figure out that one). Their developing relationship is lively and engaging.
I must confess that I was put off by some of what seemed to be rather arbitrary in this tale. While Garano’s grandmother, Nana, is an engaging character from At Risk, (she is a mystic or a witch; I’m not sure which), she seemed inserted into this plot rather incidentally. Likewise the man from Scotland Yard, brought in briefly to let us know that Lamont is suspected of supporting terrorism.
The prose here is nothing like what you have seen in Cornwell’s earlier books. It moves fast and furiously, syntax be damned, rather like the tough-guy, noire novels of the ‘30’s. It seemed to this reader that too much detail and exposition was sacrificed to this effect. I wish that Ms. Cornwell had drawn more than a swift breath in the writing.
There is an odd and rather cynical denouement. The real story here is not the unsolved murder (which is quite secondarily solved) but the age-old story of powerful and unpleasant people who make life difficult for the less powerful but more pleasant good guys. The good guys, of course, win, although including Lamont in the category of good guys is a pretty long stretch.