Middle of Nowhere

by Ridley Pearson

416 pages, 2000

Published by Hyperion

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Boldt from the Blue

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Middle of Nowhere falls short of its billing as a blockbuster thriller, but it is nevertheless likely to heighten Ridley Pearson's reputation as the author of one of the strongest series in contemporary crime fiction. His protagonist, Seattle homicide lieutenant Lou Boldt, has developed into a character whose mere presence is enough to guarantee a good read. The distinguished investigator and part-time jazz pianist has the potent mix of heroism and humanity that characterizes the great fictional detectives. He's devoted to his career and his family, but that devotion will always be threatened by flaws -- in Boldt's case, a history of alcoholism and a still-smoldering involvement with his colleague and friend, Lieutenant Daphne Matthews.

Never have Boldt's challenges, from both without and within, been deadlier than in Middle of Nowhere, the latest in this seven-book series (begun with Undercurrents, 1988). In some of the earlier outings, Pearson pitted Boldt against the crazed killers so often favored by thriller writers. Fortunately, Middle of Nowhere, like its predecessor, The First Victim (1999), focuses not on made-for-TV-type wackos but on bad guys with chillingly believable motives: revenge, jealousy, misplaced loyalty, guilt and greed.

As the book opens, the city of Seattle is reeling from an unusual wave of burglaries and assaults -- most likely a secondary symptom of the "blue flu" that has most of the police department calling in sick. Boldt, however, remains on his job at the head of the depleted Crimes Against Persons (CAP) squad.

Because of the short staffing, an intruder alarm at a private residence rings for 40 minutes before a rookie patrolman arrives and is horrified to discover that the victim is a fellow officer, Maria Sanchez. She is bound to her bed, unconscious, her neck broken. The first detective on the scene is Bobbie Gaynes, a young woman from Sex Crimes who is Boldt's current protégé in Homicide. Gaynes attempts to categorize the assault as a date rape ("Guy ties her up and gets too aggressive. Accidentally snaps her spine and takes off"), but Boldt has the uneasy feeling that the assault was premeditated and even more sinister.

He discovers that this offense against Sanchez came shortly after she took over the investigation of a series of burglaries from a group of cops who left in the "sick-out." Boldt wonders, Did she get too close and invite the wrath of the burglar? Or could she have been beaten up by fellow officers who were upset that she was doing their work? Sanchez, paralyzed and speechless in her hospital bed, tries to answer his questions using eye signals. But she loses consciousness, leaving Boldt frustrated and chilled. "A pair of eyes, Daffy," he tells Matthews. "That's all that's left of her."

Throughout this book, the pendulum of suspicion about Sanchez's attacker swings tantalizingly back and forth between bad cops -- perhaps motivated by something more pathological than job dissatisfaction -- and a vicious burglar. Boldt is tempted to go with the first theory after three men jump him in his driveway late at night. When a neighbor's guard dog comes to his aid, one of the assailants shouts in cop jargon, "K-9!" before fleeing into the dark.

But Boldt and Matthews find evidence that links a string of unsolved break-ins and attacks -- similar to the assault on Sanchez -- to a known criminal. Unfortunately, they bungle the investigation and inadvertently send their suspect over the edge by causing the death of his partner-in-crime. Soon the armed and dangerous suspect turns to stalking Boldt and his partner, bent on revenge.

Throughout this book Boldt is, as usual, torn between family and career. He's exhausted from overwork and spending a risky amount of time with Matthews (now single after a long relationship with a Seattle high-tech millionaire). Fortunately, Pearson spices up this here-we-go-again scenario by sending in one of the series' most enigmatic characters, Sergeant John LeMoia, to serve as their undercover partner:

He was a man who moved seamlessly between the uniforms and the brass, the meter maids and the Sex Crimes detectives, the entrepreneurial friend-to-all who always had an investment worth your making or a bet worth placing. He navigated a thin line between snitches and interrogation rooms, right and wrong, never quite crossing into criminal behavior, but always carrying a cloud of uncertainty in the wake of his swagger.

LeMoia had deeply disappointed Boldt by succumbing to the blue flu. Yet he turns out to have a secret that links him to Sanchez and eventually spurs him to help find her attacker.

Pearson rarely glamorizes or sensationalizes police work, and never has it looked as gritty and grim as it does in this novel, with officer pitted against officer and brass against rank-and-file. Long, lonely hours are spent poring over reports and going door-to-door conducting interviews with sniveling snitches and contemptuous yuppies. Equipment fails. Bureaucrats from other agencies drop the ball. Boldt's wife, in remission from cancer, protests his round-the-clock duties. Again and again, the detective breaks promises he has made to her. And keeping promises to her, he makes decisions that put Matthews or his investigation in jeopardy.

Boldt spends so much of Middle of Nowhere exhausted, that when adrenaline-fueled heroics come at the story's end, they are all the more amazing and authentic. This book provides no rest for Boldt or for the reader -- or for Pearson, for that matter, who is surely at work on the next installment of this red-hot series. | August 2000


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.