Throw the Book at Us 

The "Happy Face Killer" and his kind.

Angel Rock
By Darren Williams
Knopf (2002), $23
Australian novelist Williams' second novel is both a coming-of-age story and an exploration of midlife crisis woven together into the complex fabric of a murder mystery. In some ways, it is a supernatural thriller as well, haunted not by ghosts but by loss, with each character held so tightly by the past that memory keeps them from entering the future. When the disappearance of a four-year-old boy and the suicide of a teenage girl disrupt the deceptive peace of a small town, skeletons begin to emerge from the closet. The story gains speed when Gibson, a battered and weary cop, arrives in town from the big city to search for answers, not just for the citizens of Angel Rock, but for himself as well. With Gibson, Williams shows a keen eye for character and although the detective wears the all-too-familiar colors of a gumshoe, his sensitivity and vulnerability set him apart. The young author also does a good job with the voices of his teenagers, giving them both innocence and wisdom without making it sound at all precious.

There are flaws, however, in Williams' decision to mix genres. Although this work is as evocative and enigmatic as any finely tuned thriller, at times the reader will bristle at overwrought inner dialogue and philosophical diatribes that seem ill-fitted to the narrative. Still, Williams for the most part succeeds in his valiant effort to bring humanity and emotion to hardboiled subject matter -- creating in Angel Rock neither a place nor a book easily forgotten.-- Jessica Hundley

The Japanese Way of Justice
By David T. Johnson
Oxford University Press (2002), $49.95
Court TV doesn't air on Japanese cable, and for good reason. For starters, Japan still has hardly any crime (for each robbery in Tokyo, New York has 462). Johnson spent fifteen months working in a branch of Japan's Ministry of Justice, and his behind-the-scenes observations are keen and balanced. Foreigners are rarely allowed such access to sensitive aspects of Japanese culture, and Johnson frankly describes his struggles to interview reluctant prosecutors while working on this book. He spends a lot of time analyzing the prosecutors, but also does a good job of contrasting the American justice system to the Japanese one. Though admirable from a numbers-based prosecutorial standpoint, Japan's confession-heavy system could only work in Japan and cannot simply be emulated elsewhere, Johnson reveals. That said, there is still plenty that our own legal community could learn from The Japanese Way of Justice. It's a must-read if only for the many baffling factoids Johnson digs up. To wit: "Prosecutors in Japan routinely produce several hundred pages of statements during the pre-indictment investigation, even in cases that seem thoroughly mundane -- nearly five hundred pages from two juvenile boys suspected of vandalizing several vending machines; and over twelve hundred pages of statements from and about a seventy-year-old man who denied attempting to steal four books from a store." If O.J. had been arrested in Tokyo, his trial would still be going on today.

-- Charlie Amter

_"I" -- The Creation of a Serial Killer
By Jack Olsen
St. Martin's (2002), $24.95
Best-selling true-crime author Jack Olsen writes two stories here. One, told in the third person, is a study of how the tormented upbringing of trucker Keith Hunter Jesperson contributed to the killing spree in which he strangled eight women; the other is a first-person account of the crimes viewed through the eyes of the "Happy Face Killer" himself, now in a Washington State prison and interviewed extensively by the author. Olsen, who died in mid-July, grabs our attention early by walking us through the first murder from Jesperson's perspective, then turns back the clock to document the killer's early childhood. By maintaining two chronologies and changing the point of view every few chapters between objective narrator and killer, Olsen directly shows the gruesome effects of Jesperson's hideous upbringing. We might not agree with the killer's rationale, but we understand that something much more complex than pure evil drove the man. Thus it is also the story of two villains: Keith and his father, Leslie. The elder Jesperson, an agricultural and engineering genius as well as a local politician, gave his son many tools with which to earn a good living, but the alcoholic father also tormented the boy mercilessly and never relinquished an obsession with total control -- even long after Keith was in prison. At times father and son seem like different versions of the same twisted person. Instead of using judgmental or heavy-handed prose to condemn the killer or anyone else, Olsen lets facts speak for themselves -- literally. Directly quoting Jesperson and others for pages on end, he gives them more than enough rope.

-- Keith Bowers

Stanley Park
By Timothy Taylor
Counterpoint (2002), $25
Like his protagonist, purist chef Jeremy Papier, debut novelist Taylor struggles to be authentic while employing artifice. The bountiful Vancouver park for which this book is named offers shelter and sustenance to wildlife and the homeless, and welcomes Jeremy's estranged father, the Professor -- who soon morphs from participatory anthropologist into hunter-gatherer, a Green Man who becomes fixated on a long-unsolved murder that occurred in the park, and lives an Edenic myth that gradually winds tendrils around his son. Jeremy and his colleagues, Taylor tells us, fall into two camps: Crips and Bloods. A traditional chef, Jeremy is an unpretentious Blood, loyal to what's local, as opposed to rootless, affected, trend-chasing Crips. But his bistro's failing finances lead Jeremy to strike a reluctant Faustian bargain with ruthless family friend Dante Beale. Unsurprisingly, Dante is the mastermind behind the Inferno Coffee company's cafe-by-cafe global conquest. But his contradictory name, recalling that Florentine visitor to Hell and his diabolical Host, is a symptom of Taylor's troublesome penchant for incongruous mergers, such as grafting murder mystery and social commentary onto a satire spoofing food snobbery and restaurants-as-theater. Jeremy has a trickster side, which he uses to turn the tables on Beale and other Crips. Taylor's greatest strength is the empathy he elicits for characters like his duplicitous kitchen confidant -- but has he forgotten that the lowest circle of Hell is for those who betray their benefactors?

-- Pat Katzmann

Pot Planet
By Brian Preston
Grove (2002), $15
The lens of this travelogue, subtitled "Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture," is far too clouded with its author's own smoke to give a clear picture of the legal state of growing, selling, and smoking this controversial herb. "I can just sit on my ass, get baked on fine weed, and let the story come to me, in the form of locals and tourists wandering in for a doob and a chat," Preston writes of his peripatetic mission while seated in the HempBar of Nimbin, Australia. Divided among twelve countries, his jumpy chapters repeat the theme that it's a crime that pot's illegal, with only choppy explanations of both the overt laws and covert policing practices in each region. He's more concerned with where he found it, with whom he smoked it, and how the high was, which often, he says himself, comes "close to sounding like pretentious wine-snob chatter." Later chapters on England, Canada, and the United States attempt to explore current legal battles, particularly over medicinal use. But Preston's constant THC buzz derails what could be a worthwhile look at growing tolerance for the divisive drug. His writing turns particularly sour in the moralizing concluding chapter and post-9/11 epilogue that wildly accuses all Americans of being isolationist couch potatoes. His solution? The world's people rolling one together and finding "smoky communion."

-- Deborah Claymon


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