Things go from ducky to deadly in the opening pages of John Lescroart's latest mystery, his 21st since 1982. First, Mickey Dade—aspiring chef and part-time driver for an investigative firm—stumbles upon a group of protestors fighting the removal of ducks from a lagoon being drained on the grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Then Mickey discovers a corpse in the receding water: "Its head broke the water's surface and the dead man's eyeless face stared up at him, caught and silenced in midscream."
By the second chapter, the dead body has been identified as civic activist Dominic Como, a major player in half a dozen local charities, and Mickey has been thrust into the glare of publicity—television cameras bring him a brief flash of celebrity.
Mickey's brush with fame sets the rest of the story in motion. His employer, private investigator Wyatt Hunt, has hit hard times and is planning to close his detective agency, the Hunt Club. Might Mickey's newfound fame attract enough business to keep the enterprise afloat? It seems so when one of Mickey's fellow culinary-school students, Ian Thorpe, catches the interview on TV and asks Mickey to clear the good name of Ian's sister, Alicia. If not, Ian fears, Alicia risks becoming a suspect in Como's murder, for she had been a driver for Como—and possibly his lover, too.
A plan emerges: "What if, Mickey wondered, the Hunt Club could act as a clearinghouse between the people with information, the police who needed the information, and the institutions that had the cash that would be willing to pay for the information? What if he could pitch the idea of a 'people's reward' for information related to Como's death?" The charities themselves, Mickey reasons, would have a "vested interest" in discovering who has killed one of their own.
Mickey sees myriad opportunities to help his struggling employer: finding "prospective clients who could chip in for The Hunt Club's services… would be a bit of a treasure hunt, but once Mickey did that, he might be able to give Hunt a couple of months respite." (It doesn't hurt that Alicia turns out to be drop-dead gorgeous; proving her innocence may be advantageous to Mickey in other ways, too.)
Mickey's not the only one working the angles. As the investigation heats up, the charities emerge as treasure houses in their own right, boasting budgets of $30 million and more. Public funds fill private accounts, making these "nonprofits" personally profitable; local businesses have been strong-armed into giving 'til it hurts; and the Powers That Be may have resorted to murder to conceal their financial misdeeds.
Como's complicity in those crimes becomes the central question. For starters, his $650,000 salary singles him out as someone who by doing good has been doing well—very well indeed. (A far less charitable description—Lescroart works it into Treasure Hunt via a newspaper column attacking the organizations—dubs him one of the "poverty pimps.") And the eagerness of Como's charities to contribute to that "people's reward" has a base motive: one executive calls it "a great fundraising opportunity"—a chance to make a "special, one-time appeal for emergency funds to cover the reward we're offering." Millions will flow into his coffers as a result, he anticipates.
Then a second civic leader turns up, this one beaten to death with a fireplace poker.
It's a great setup—corruption, a trail of dirty money, even a romantic subplot or two—and high drama lies ahead, including a graveside showdown between Alicia and Como's widow. But unlikely coincidences cloud the story from the beginning. What are the odds that someone from Mickey's cooking class would have a sister connected to a corpse Mickey found? What greater odds that Mickey and his sister, Tamara, had a tough childhood that so closely parallels that of brother-sister duo Ian and Alicia? And would you believe me if I told you that Mickey's and Tamara's grandfather had also been one of Como's drivers? Small world, this San Francisco.
That grandfather, Jim Parr, grieves deeply over Como's murder. Roused to action by his memories of how Como had turned Parr's life around when Mickey and Tamara were young and needed their grandfather most, Parr crashes the investigation, heading off to one charity's headquarters to make his own inquiries—despite having "promised my good-cooking grandson I wouldn't go out there and ask around." Parr is bent on making a difference, on proving he's still valuable. He will do precisely that—with a twist—by vanishing en route to his destination.
Lescroart's self-assigned task of juggling the individual dramas of so many major characters (and often their old baggage from previous novels) leaves each of their stories a tad underdeveloped. The author's attention to such personal dilemmas also seems to compete with the provocative civic and political issues he raises. By book's end, Lescroart has sold short too many of his grand themes, pushing fine ideas aside as blithely as chasing ducks from a lagoon. And as his investigation of civic-goodness-gone-bad begins to wander, Lescroart springs a hoary plot device: investigator Wyatt Hunt gathers the suspects in a room and makes his way around the circle, recalling turns of phrase and fleeting details and promising to unmask "one of you" as the killer before the evening ends.
Even if the gold at the end of this quest verges on the fool's variety, Treasure Hunt generally delivers on the riches promised by its title: brisk writing, likable characters, and a compelling (if underrealized) scenario, studded by gleaming nuggets of reading pleasure along the way.
Art Taylor writes frequently about mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post, Mystery Scene, and The Strand. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and he is currently working on a novel.
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