It is axiomatic among mystery writers, no less than real-estate agents, that "location, location, location" are the three most important words in English. To the best crime writers, a sense of place is every bit as crucial as who killed Col. Mustard in the pantry with a candlestick. No one has ever caught the corrupt beauty of Los Angeles better than Raymond Chandler, and Rex Stout's wry evocation of Manhattan remains vivid two decades af-ter his death. But, as two new mysteries prove in very different ways, bringing a place to life in print is a tough trick.
No writer could be more obsessed with geography than April Smith. She even takes the title of her debut novel, "North of Montana" (293 pages. Knopf. $23), from a map coordinate. The "Montana" in question is a street in Santa Monica. To the north lies a swanky neighborhood populated by the nouveau riche, including a surgeon accused by an aging movie queen of addicting her to painkillers. To nail the doc, Ana Grey, an ambitious young FBI agent, treks out to the desert, then loops back to Malibu, Westwood, Marina del Rey and the Latino turf around Echo Park. By the time she wraps up her case, she's hit most of the socioeconomic enclaves in Los Angeles.
There's a lot of buzz around this book and it's not hard to see why. A onetime TV writer, Smith creates dialogue with bite and has a real knack for loonily evocative character sketches. Describing Grey's malevolent boss, she writes: "When Duane levels that slow-moving good-ole-boy stuff at you it's like he's taking his time pointing a .45 at your forehead. I would call him a sociopath but he doesn't like people." Unfortunately, Smith doesn't play to her strengths. She wants to paint L.A. on a big canvas, but she doesn't have much to tell us about the city other than that it's very big and very diverse, and you probably knew that already.
Donald E. Westlake is everything Smith isn't: mean and snooty, unfair to his characters, cavalier with his plot. He is also very funny and weirdly enlightening. In "Baby, Would I Lie?" (291 pages. Mysterious Press. $19.95), the nominal subject is the murder trial of faux-dumb country singer Ray Jones, who's made his fortune singing songs like "My Ideal": "Wherever birds assemble, she is the pick of the flock / And she turns into a pizza at three o'clock." But Westlake's real target is Branson, Mo., a country-music tourist trap that nestles in the Ozarks like a rhinestone in a belly dancer's navel.
Westlake has made the satirical crime story his specialty. He wrote the mordant screenplay for "The Grifters," and his novel "Trust Me On This" gleefully savaged tabloid journalism. But Branson inspires Westlake to new heights of loathing. He hates the food, the traffic, the false piety of slickly packaged family entertainment. Even his similes sound enraged: at the headquarters of the Ray Jones defense team, the old phone lines jut "like hairy moles from the walls."
To Westlake, Branson is a nonplace; like Disney World or Vegas, it could be anywhere. The town teeters on a ridge line "so narrow," he writes, "that beyond the gauntlet of fun," stony land falls away to semi-desert, "as though God had blasted everything else in the whole world and had just left this one meandering highland line of neon glitz as a reminder of what it was that had teed Him off in the first place." Westlake has nailed the vacuous enormity, the sheer soul-sapping seediness, that lurks in so much of the culture. His version of Branson sounds like a lot more fun than the real thing.