Indigo Slam
By Robert Crais
Hyperion; 288 pages; $22.95

For mystery fans looking for light but intelligent summer reading, it's hard to go wrong with an Elvis Cole novel by Robert Crais. The sunny L.A. setting, the snappy wiseguy dialogue and the fast-paced action usually make for excellent hot weather entertainment.

At the beginning of Crais's latest offering, "Indigo Slam," three children arrive in Coles's office, wanting to hire him to find their father. Clark Hewitt, an itinerant printer, abandoned them eleven days ago. The oldest child, fifteen-year-old Teri, seems to be more than capable of keeping the family together, so Cole holds back on his initial instinct to call the police or the department of social services.

Clark Hewitt's trail leads to Seattle, where Cole finds one of his former buddies, another printer who goes sick with fear at the very mention of Hewitt's name. Gradually, Cole learns why Hewitt inspires such terror. Not only does Hewitt seem to be in the grips of a longstanding heroin addiction, but the folks searching desperately for him include Russian mobsters, Vietnamese expatriates and federal agents.

Back in L.A., Cole puts his best friend and partner, the inscrutable and dangerous Joe Pike, in charge of the kids' safety. But even Pike's martial arts training and expertise with firearms can't fully protect them.

Cole is one of those characters who has a smart line for almost every situation, but Crais takes care to let his humanity show through. His flipness disappears when truly important things are at stake. The predicament of the Hewitt kids touches him deeply: "I thought about Teresa and Charles and Winona, and how the daddy I was trying to find wasn't the same daddy that Teri was searching for, and I thought show sad it was that we often never really know the people around us, even the people we love."

Through all this, Cole keeps his spirits up with the news that his girlfriend, Louisiana attorney Lucy Chenier, is eager to move to L.A., provided she lands a job with a local television station. The arrival of her bitter, vindictive ex-husband complicates that plan. He warns Cole that he has no intention of letting his son move to California and that Cole himself had better put a stop of Lucy's plans to relocate.

In his last book, Crais broke away from the narrative pattern that had dominated the earlier installments. "Sunset Express" ended with more than just a shoot-out between Cole and Pike and whatever bad guys happened to be in their way. Its denouement left readers with the feeling that the author had upped the ante on an already superior mystery series.

"Indigio Slam," on the other hand, proves just a litle too predictable to rank with Crais's best efforts. Crais leavens the plot with a few neat twists but it doesn't take a scholar of the genre to guess that one of the Hewitt kids will end up being held hostage before the book is over. That Crais sets the climatic showdown at Disneyland also suggests that he might not have given his imagination the workout the material demands.

Still, Cole is such an ingratiating character and Crais is such a smooth writer that it's hard to be too disgruntled with "Indigo Slam." One merely hopes that the next effort will prove more ambitious.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry

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