Tuesday, April 02, 2002

'Eureka' is only a whisper of expected greatness

Diehl's newest book drags for readers

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's a time when the nation's illusions are being ground between two world wars. Innocence is for sale on any street corner. In Los Angeles, a woman with no past takes a bath with an electric radio.

By William Diehl
Ballantine; $25; 440 pages
        Enter a tough city cop. Send him to a small town seething with corruption. Toss in some dark secrets and underscore it with a certain amount of reciprocity.

        Let William Diehl, who for my money is one of the best suspense writers in the business, tie it all together.

        It should be golden. But Eureka, Mr. Diehl's first book since 1997, turns out to be a fool's promise — tantalizing, with just enough glitter to keep you digging for something that isn't there.

        The book opens quickly enough, with former detective Zeke Bannon recovering in a hospital bed from war wounds. He has a story to share, and whatever it is, you know its going to be more painful than his injuries.

        Then the narration shifts. We are swept back 45 years to the sleazy railroad camp town Eureka, where a boy named Brodie Culhane will grow up to rule as an iron-fisted sheriff.

        For the next 80 pages we follow Culhane through an illicit love affair, into the trenches of World War I and back to Eureka, where a shootout will echo years later in the state capital.

        It is a prologue that gives away too much and interrupts the flow of the real story. That is the one Bannon picks up again in 1941, where he is investigating the death of Verna Wilensky. Signs point to an accident but Bannon is troubled. It seems her life began with a bank book kept flush by periodic payments. Blackmail? Hush money?

        Bannon, along with his partner Ski Agassi, follows the money trail up the California coast to Eureka, now gentrified and renamed San Pietro. There he squares off with Culhane, who is in the middle of a bid for governor and doesn't need a pit bull cop tugging at the layers of respectability the town has quilted itself in.

        The dance between the two men is engaging. But the tempo never really changes, never heats up. It's almost as if Mr. Diehl had a misstep while writing two stories, either of which would have been more interesting than the one he chose to tell.

        With Culhane, Mr. Diehl seems to have fallen victim to the same circumstances his characters so often do: He gets too close to the antagonist. Instead of letting Culhane get really nasty, Mr. Diehl shields him and turns him into a broken vessel of moral ambiguity.

        It is in the way Culhane rules his town that makes me think Eureka started as something else. He is the law, but his enforcers are battle-scarred veterans with injuries or wounds that keep them from being cops in the real world. This is the kind of cutthroat story Mr. Diehl delivered in Hooligans, where a group of disparate lawmen take on a corrupt southern town. There, the characters were fleshed out, but here they are cut down with little regret, because we never get to know them.

        Mr. Diehl is more comfortable with Bannon, who embodies the determination of Sharky, from his first book, Sharky's Machine and the skill of lawyer Martin Vail, introduced in Primal Fear. But unlike those straight-ahead reads, here the set-up takes too long.

        And another thing: the book is called Eureka but much of it takes place in Los Angeles, where Bannon lives and works. In wonderful historical detail, Mr. Diehl takes us on a tour of 1940s Los Angeles, painting a picture of a city that exists only on celluloid. But the title isn't Los Angeles and every minute Bannon spends there is lost time for the reader.

        Again, you're left wishing that Mr. Diehl had written two different books. By the end of this one, you feel as if you have been on a whirlwind California road trip during which you never stop in one place long enough for it to make an impression.

        All of this said, Mr. Diehl proves his power as a writer with one final lure and, now, I can't wait for the sequel.


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