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Wednesday, 30 August 2006 00:00

Frank delivers another fine detective novel

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In Marshall Frank’s latest Miami detective novel, The Latent (ISBN 1-4137-9890-X), a serial killer is terrorizing Miami’s gay community. Rockford “Rock” Burgamy, the detective assigned to the case and a stranger to the gay subculture, must not only track down the vicious killer known as J.D., but must also struggle with his own personal problems.

A drunk and a twice-divorced father of two, he still loves his second wife, Kathryn, but he’s broken both in terms of his finances and his outlook of life. Rock finds himself slipping into a pit of alcohol and self-pity. Even his name — Rock — seems a mockery of his disordered personality.

One evening while investigating the murders, a drunken Rock dons a tight black T-shirt, enters a gay club, and begins dancing. The other dancers quickly realize he’s a policeman, and he heads to another gay club, The Big Dipper. Here he becomes disturbed when he spots Dr. Zellers, his counselor following the divorce from Kathryn. Rock leaves the club to find a woman, Lara, but when he awakens in a drunken stupor he realizes that Lara is a transsexual. When the transsexual is murdered and Rock’s fingerprints are found, he is accused of the killing. The remainder of the book follows his attempts to free himself from the charges and to reunite with Kathryn, who is also serving as his attorney.

Like Marshall Frank’s other detective novels, The Latent (the term in this case refers to a fingerprint on the body of the murdered transsexual) reveals his years of experience working as a policeman in Dade County, Fla. Frank takes us inside the police stations and criminal investigation units without overwhelming us with technical details yet leaving us at the same feeling the veracity of each scene.

Rock Burgamy is another good reason to read The Latent. Here is a man who makes mistakes all the time, who has nearly lost his way in life, but a man with whom most of us should identify in terms of his basic humanity. He is a man who, like many men and women, struggles more than he triumphs and falls flat on his face numerous times. Rock has no choice but to get back on his feet. At one point in the book, imprisoned for murder, he comes to the end of his rope:

In the darkness amid the smells of steel and sweat, for the first time since he was 11 years old, Rock slipped to his knees on the concrete floor, closed his eyes and folded his hands atop his bunk. “Dear God, please, oh please ...”

Though his life changes for the better by the end of the book, we have no sense of Burgamy undergoing any sort of religious conversion. Here again he is all too human: a foxhole convert who, once the crisis is past, goes along his way without too many more thoughts regarding theology.

Frank also does a fine job of painting Burgamy as an alcoholic. Burgamy’s radical mood shifts and poor decisions are frequently the result of his drinking. We watch Burgamy’s life disintegrate as a consequence of both alcohol and circumstances. Reading about this inebriated detective made me think of the recent incident involving Mel Gibson. Gibson is clearly a cad and a fool, but I had to laugh at the sanctimonious reporters and columnists for their attacks on his drunken statements. In vino veritas, perhaps, but these prissy reporters either don’t know how it feels to be solidly drunk or are as guilty as Gibson of hypocrisy and cant.

There were a few miscues in terms of the descriptions in the book. The killer is described by a gay victim as being “as gorgeous away from the bar as he was in, like some rugged, malodorous longshoreman just off the docks.” Would someone really find another person attractive who was “malodorous?” At another point, a man in a gay club tells Burgamy he’d fit into the club if he got himself some “groovy clothes.” Groovy is surely as dead as bell-bottoms and Nehru shirts.

But these are mild criticisms of a fine novel. Congratulations are due to Marshall Frank for delivering another story that should win him more readers than ever.

•••

Michael Dirda is a book reviewer and critic for The Washington Post Book World. He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Dirda has given us Book By Book: Notes on Reading and Life (Henry Holt & Co., $17.00), a slim volume of personal observations on books and authors. He has divided his literary reflections into various topics: “The Pleasures of Learn,” “The Books of Love,” “Matters of the Spirit,” and so on.

One particular delight in this book is the style and form in which it is written. In each chapter Dirda gives us a section of quotations as a sort of theme on the chapter, offers some very short essays on that theme, and then recommends specific books to the reader.

Though Book By Book is the sort of work you want to read aloud to anyone in the same room with you, I am constrained by space here to one quotation. Since the opening date for school rapidly approaches, I chose the following:

The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of any lands. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.

— Flannery O’Connor

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