Outside his car windows, Venice unreeled like a nightmare landscape, veiled in fog, dark, labyrinthine. Ramshackle two- and three-story frame houses wore Room for Rent and Vacancy signs, Dressmaking and Alterations, or, simply, Peace. Roofs and porches sagged, dripping. Here and there doors stood open. On the high verandas once peopled with tourists taking the sea air, derelict-looking groups of hippies squatted, communing, turning on, sheltering from the damp. Along the dark streets, passers-by looked furtive or somnambulistic. The land of the alienated, Farr thought. A fitting place for the beginning or end of a bad dream.
Carolyn Weston wrote just six novels that I’m aware of, including three 1970s police procedural-thrillers starring the detective odd couple Al Krug and Casey Kellogg. As the cover points out, this novel inspired the ABC-TV procedural The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977). The TV show starred Karl Malden and Michael Douglas, though it renamed the protagonists and traded Santa Monica for the Bay area. Weston’s writing has fallen into obscurity since, and her passing in 2001 seemed to herald an end for her series. But Brash Books is bringing back her three Krug/Kellogg novels, and has commissioned crime writer Robin Burcell to continue the series.
I was provided with a review copy by Brash Books and Netgalley in exchange for an open and honest review.
The body of a young woman was pulled out of Santa Monica bay this morning, identified as one Holly Berry, and determined to be a homicide victim. The only clue to her murder is a law firm’s business card strung around her neck in a waterproof case. Detectives Al Krug and Casey Kellogg are on the case—a detective odd couple, pairing the grizzled traditionalist Al with the college-grad young upstart Casey. As the investigation progresses, they find that young lawyer David Farr was the last person to see her alive—a weekend fling that went south after Farr realized she was a paranoid ex-junkie who was sure someone was out to get her, ending when she passed out in a motel. Now that Farr’s under the microscope, he begins to second-guess her paranoia—and what of the junkie brother and mysterious uncle she talked of? Al Krug sees Farr as a solid match for a suspect, though Kellogg isn’t so sure. What it boils down to is proof—if Krug and Kellogg can find something to incriminate Farr before Farr tracks down Holly’s unknown assailant…
Considering that Watergate, Woodstock, and Vietnam were current events when the novel was written, it’s aged remarkably well. (Maybe it’s because the issues of the day are still the issues of today—“another Mideast crisis; unemployment was rising, inflation was unchecked.”) Similarly, the novel’s main element is still relevant today: the generation gap between Al and the “kids these days” like Casey, which creates a lot of friction in the police department. Casey is young, college-educated, and upwardly-mobile; his well-to-do parents frown at his choice of careers, wishing he’d gone into something like law. Al is more traditional, who learned at the school of hard knocks and snagged his detective’s badge not from grades but by through dedication and hard work. Other members of the department will give Casey a good ribbing, good-natured teasing though there’s a underlying hint of fear, that they recognize the new breed of detective and are threatened by it. Most of all, it’s chief suspect Farr’s similarities to Casey—young, well-educated and well-to-do wearing fashionable clothes and driving a Jaguar—that causes Krug to suspect him and Casey to defend his stonewalling.
Weston’s writing is hard-hitting and fast; between the author’s excellent prose, well-drawn characters, and smooth plotting, the novel has a wonderful flow. She also makes great use of the California setting, evoking Santa Monica’s fog-shrouded streets and hint of dry desert air from page one. Krug and Kellogg’s investigation takes them to a Synanon drug rehabilitation clinic, through the drug-rock scene, around the local marina, to a sadist’s refuge and torture chamber. The procedural element moves at a decent pace, though not without setbacks, and we see some of the other daily cases in passing; as the tension heats up, it becomes more of an action-thriller. It makes me wish Weston had been a more prolific writer—she passed away in 2001, and aside from the three Krug/Kellogg novels, I’m only aware that she wrote three other books. Weston’s other two Krug and Kellogg novels are scheduled for release by Brash Books later in the year, and have commissioned Robin Burcell to continue the series. (I’m always leery about having one author continue another’s series, but Brash has had an excellent track record thus far.)
Poor Poor Ophelia is an excellent police procedural, a fast-flowing novel with strong characterization and plotting. The clues keep you guessing until the end, and the plot comes together with perfect precision. It’s a nice period piece that doesn’t feel dated today, as its issues and themes are still common ones we’re dealing with today, and its generational gap issues between the two detectives adds another layer of depth to the story. I found it to be an impressive work by an unknown writer, and give a high recommendation: if you enjoy a good police procedural, consider this one for your shortlist. The two sequels are not yet released but are available for pre-order, and I’ll be sure to read them as they come out.