The First Victim
by Ridley Pearson
Published by Hyperion
413 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
The cat had long since given up hope of being petted and was curled on the rug, asleep. My husband's snores could be heard from the bedroom. It was three o'clock in the morning and I huddled in my chair, oblivious to everything but the book I was reading -- Ridley Pearson's The First Victim.
This is the sixth book in Pearson's distinguished series about Lou Boldt, a tough, independent and principled police lieutenant with Seattle's Crimes Against Persons squad. These tales of the darker side of life in the Emerald City, begun with Undercurrents (1988), have a way of telling themselves and pulling the reader along for a great ride.
In The First Victim, Pearson sets his sights high with a powerful opening that revitalizes the oldest cliché in mystery writing. It was, indeed, a dark and stormy night -- the tail end of a Pacific typhoon that has 15-foot swells churning up downtown Seattle's Elliott Bay. Despite the weather, a freighter has left the authorized shipping lanes to rendezvous with a tug and transfer a container of contraband. With one of the freighter's crewmen already injured by cargo loose on the waterswept deck and three others having lashed themselves to the railings for safety, the attempt to transfer this container is short-handed and fails. One, two, then three cables break. The container plummets into the churning water. Both freighter and tugboat flee the scene.
What does this have to do with the Seattle police? Boldt, playing jazz piano at a friend's nightclub, is paged to the scene when the Coast Guard discovers the floating container in Elliott Bay -- and hears screams from inside. Twelve young Chinese women had been kept locked, starving and dehydrated, in the container as the freighter made its slow voyage through the typhoon. Three had died during the journey. The survivors refuse to admit that they were being smuggled into the United States to work in sweatshops and other illegal industries. Boldt's police team embarks on an uneasy alliance with Brian Coughlie, the official from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) who is assigned to this human smuggling case.
To complicate matters further, brash local news anchor Stevie McNeal soon gets in the way of Boldt's investigation. She's helping her adopted sister Melissa, who is ethnic Chinese, to freelance a story about the smuggling and make her own break into TV journalism. Lack of cooperation from Coughlie and the two ambitious journalists frustrate Boldt in his efforts to resolve his criminal probe. Soon Melissa vanishes and a second investigation must be launched to find her.
The First Victim is rich in setting, character and plot. As usual, Pearson has his story well-grounded in Seattle geography -- from the ugly warehouse district south of the sports arenas, to the Asian grocery stores and restaurants of the International District, to a chase from bustling Westlake Plaza to the Seattle Art Museum and surveillance at a bland, sterile, vehicle-licensing office in North Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood. He captures the superficiality of the TV news environment and the egotism of 39-year-old McNeal, who's at the peak of her earning power as a talking head. Coughlie, the smarmy INS bureaucrat, is all too easy to underestimate, while Mama Lu, a powerful doyenne in Seattle's hidden Asian business world, radiates ambiguity and danger.
Enough storylines run through this book to make a gillnet for a commercial fishing trawler. Boldt is having trouble with his new supervisory role, which is supposed to keep him at his desk and away from direct investigation. But to the annoyance of his superior, he can't resist getting out in the field and teaming up with John LaMoia, the talented detective who has replaced him as sergeant.
Boldt's wife, Patricia, is in remission -- or in recovery, as she says -- from lymphoma. His risk-taking on this case, which in the past caused the couple to separate, may become a problem again.
Boldt's colleague, police psychologist Daphne Matthews, is essential to handling reluctant witnesses -- but she's still grappling with her feelings for Boldt. Their love affair, ignited in Undercurrents, has smoldered and flared wonderfully throughout the series; it still shows an occasional ember in this book.
Three middlemen involved in the smuggling operation -- including the freighter captain -- are killed before police can interview them. The bodies of more young Chinese women, buried beneath caskets in a local cemetery, turn up. And victims from the container ship are found to have suffered from a particularly virulent flu, arousing the interest of the local medical examiner. Boldt uses the flu scare to set an unusual trap for key figures in the smuggling operation, who he hopes will be worried about their exposure to the virus.
The book's tantalizingly busy pace is, unfortunately, also at times its weakness. Less plotting, more Boldt! I found myself thinking halfway through. Reading First Victim reminded me of trying to catch up with an old friend on a weekend visit -- so much to see and do, but not much depth to the connection. Snippets of Boldt's concern about wife Patricia's fragile health and indications of the uneasiness that underlies his relationship with Daphne Matthews were not enough for a reader like me, spoiled by previous books in this series, such as Beyond Recognition (1997). In that story, Boldt's search for a vicious arsonist was intertwined with a subplot in which he and Daphne became involved in an abused boy's friendship with a fortune teller -- and the book ended with Boldt's accidental discovery of a shocking secret about his wife.
The First Victim is more a thriller than a psychological mystery and as a thriller, it sure delivers the goods. I know that the next time I drive past the Seattle waterfront on a stormy night I'll shiver, wondering if somewhere out there a battered freighter has detoured from the shipping lanes to deliver a terrible cargo. | August 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.