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Posted on Mon, Dec 12, 2011 : 4:18 p.m.

Robert Ellis' newest book is a compelling police novel with a female lead

By Robin Agnew

Murder Season
Robert Ellis

Minotaur, $25.99

“She could smell it in the pillow as she pulled it closer. On the sheets as she rolled over in the darkness and searched out cool spots that were not there. Murder Season. She was floating, drifting. Cruising through an open seam between sleep and consciousness.”

If there is a writer to resemble, it might be a good idea to resemble Michael Connelly. It is no disrespect to say that Robert Ellis' tightly plotted police procedurals set in L.A. and featuring homicide detective Lena Gamble resemble Connelly’s Harrry Bosch novels.

However, the gender change up makes the whole enterprise fresh. Ellis happily also shares Connelly’s sharp plotting and ability to give the reader a twist that has been fairly laid out for the reader, yet is still a surprise.

I think police novels are the modern equivalent of the private eye novel — the police in contemporary mysteries often think and operate somewhat outside the box, much like an old school private eye — so using the old P.I. tropes is a natural fit. Ellis embellishes the tropes and makes them his own, and one of the ways he does this is with evocative prose.

The first chapter of this novel is truly masterful, and if I were teaching students a way to write a first chapter that laid in the themes of the book, set a tone and did it concisely yet beautifully, I think I would use this chapter as an example. Fancy writing shouldn't put you off reading it, however, because to miss this novel would be a crime. And after setting the tone with the first chapter, the book is off and running.

Lena Gamble is woken up in the middle of the night and called in to deal with a case no one else wants to touch, or even talk about over the phone. She heads to an exclusive L.A. nightclub, Club 3 AM, and is led to a murder scene — the owner of the club is dead, drugs are on the table, and another man is dead against the wall, shot through the eyes. Lena thinks right away the killer was after the man shot through the eyes, and when she finds out who the dead man was, she's sure of it.

The dead man is 25-year-old Jacob Gant, who had been accused — and acquitted — of murdering his 16-year-old neighbor. Suspicion instantly shifts to the dead girl's father, who is obviously grieving and has a drinking problem.

As Lena begins to unravel the complicated threads of the case, it becomes clear that nothing is quite what it seems, and that there are few people she can trust. The only reason this is not a full-blown noir is that Lena is an essentially good person, who tries, in the best white knight tradition, to do what's right.

This book is, at it's heart, a kick-ass police procedural with lots of twists. Ellis is also wonderful with characters, and he makes you care not only about Lena but about several other characters in the book, notably a cop on his way down. Ellis' thoughtful mediations on what's right and what’s wrong make this novel a standout. The rest of the series is good, but this book is a cut above.

Robin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's bookshop in Ann Arbor.