Former police detective John Bekker is supposed to be through with detecting. After more than a decade during which he was drunk and his daughter lived, not talking, in a home for traumatized children, now he has his life together.
Bekker is off the sauce, 19-year-old Regan is out of the institution and adjusting to life in the real world, and Bekker is about to marry Janet, sister to his first wife, who was killed by a mobster’s son. That killing brought on Bekker’s drunkenness and Regan’s silence.
The first two pages of “First Light,” Portland writer Al Lamanda’s third installment of the John Bekker mystery series, neatly summarize the essential details of the first two books, preparing you for a new, fast-paced adventure.
When Janet agreed to marry Bekker, she made him promise to find a new line of work, largely because his last case had put the rebuilding family in severe danger. Bekker hates to give up the kind of work he does best, but he is looking for a real job.
Then, Janet wants to make an exception, urging Bekker to take a case for Robert Gordon, chief of medicine at the hospital where she works.
Gordon tells Bekker that his wife died in childbirth 40 years ago, while the baby girl survived. Gordon, who was in medical school, thought he could not raise a child, and his uncle sold the baby on the black market rather than going through legal adoption procedures.
Gordon is dying of cancer and, with no other potential heirs, he wants to leave his money to his daughter.
Bekker identifies the girl and learns that she grew up in Queens, went to work for a think-tank involved in environmental issues and went missing right after some congressional hearings, chaired by Sen. Oliver K. Koch of Maine, who – somewhat surprisingly given the realities of the political world – wants to be vice president.
A letter from a Portland-area zip code leads Bekker to make several trips to Maine from his home in the New York area, and it is fun watching him travel parts of Boothbay Harbor, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth. Bekker learns that Gordon’s daughter was pregnant when she went missing, and Koch was likely the father.
The investigation is intense and violent. Janet is injured, and Regan threatened. And Bekker chases many false leads.
One of the strongest aspects of the book is the way the family develops as a unit. The preparations for the wedding get complicated and humorous. Bekker has trouble dealing with Regan growing up and developing an interest in boys. Bekker and Janet even sit a few rows behind Regan at a movie theater, as she goes on her first date.
Parts of the Bekker lifestyle, however, seem derivative. Bekker lives in a beachfront trailer like Jim Rockford of “The Rockford Files,” cracks wise like Spenser and is a recovering alcoholic like Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. Mysteries are almost by definition formulaic, and that may be part of the formula here. The familiarity gets the reader comfortable for the ride to come.
In the end, Bekker figures out who the guilty party is, but the ending is disappointing, with justice left to a freak accident – deus ex machina – and Bekker looking on unable to help, or hinder. A book that had been enjoyable for 310 pages hits a sour note at the end.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]