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What Is Paula Reading ?

By Michael Gruber

William Morrow, 438 Pages, $24.95


By Paula L. Woods, Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2005

Michael Gruber is one of those writers we might never have known had he not parted ways with his cousin. Gruber was an uncredited, and reportedly increasingly frustrated, ghostwriter for 14 of Robert K. Tanenbaum's thrillers. He struck out on his own with "Tropic of Night," a complex, category-defying 2003 thriller featuring Miami homicide detective Iago (Jimmy) Paz and his partner, Cletis Barlow. Heavily hyped and exceptionally well reviewed, "Tropic of Night" employed a heady mix of African shamanism, serial killers, sociological theory and literary allusions that was both intellectually challenging and thoroughly entertaining.

Can lightning strike twice? Gruber's second novel, "Valley of Bones," certainly has complexity, along with some initial thrills as Tito Morales, a Miami cop, is called to the swanky Trianon Hotel just in time to see a well-dressed body fall from a hotel balcony. Morales and the Afro Cuban detective Paz who has been working solo since his Scripture-spouting partner, Barlow, was ousted from the department discover a woman kneeling, praying to St. Catherine of Siena in the room from which the man's body was pushed. The woman, Emmylou Dideroff, is an office manager in a marine shop, but when Paz looks at her, he sees a lot more: "[I]t was like looking into the eyes of two completely different people, one set being the icicles of a stone killer, and the other the sorrowful soft sky blues of the Blessed Virgin in a chapel."

With a mother who practices Santeria, and having recently solved the Voodoo Killers case, Paz is no stranger to occult religious practices, yet Dideroff frightens him and stirs his detective instincts. Even though the evidence points to her as the killer of Jabir Akran al-Muwalid, Paz is suspicious. How did Al-Muwalid, who bragged about a major Sudanese oil reserve before his death, cross her path? Why was he on the FBI terrorist watch list? What would prompt her to bludgeon Al-Muwalid to death before heaving him over that balcony? And if she is guilty of crimes, as Dideroff assures Paz she is, what are they and how do they relate to the victim's death?

The young woman is equally intriguing to Lorna Wise, a psychologist who, after an eerie interview to determine the suspect's mental competency, wonders: "Is Emmylou Dideroff a religious maniac? How is that different from being merely religious, if mere religion means ascribing reality to what cannot be verified by others?"

As Dideroff writes out her rambling "confessions," the reader relives her horrific childhood and the subsequent acts of criminal retribution that propel her from small-town Florida to Virginia, to Rome and eventually to help the oppressed people of Sudan. Interspersed with her confessions is a compelling and convincing parallel history of the Society of Nursing Sisters of the Blood of Christ (SBC), a radical Catholic order whose roots go back to France and one Marie-Ange de Berville. By the time the two story lines intersect, Paz has killed a man, Wise and Paz have teamed up in more ways than one, and even Barlow has joined the hair-raising quest to save Dideroff's life and mete out justice to the guilty on both sides of the law.

Gruber has not only written another winning tale but also deepened the reader's interest in the complex, compelling Jimmy Paz. A hotshot cop whose accomplishments have alienated his Latino and white Miami PD colleagues, Paz is by turns suave and brash, insecure and thoughtful, a man as likely to quote poetry as kick some butt. His scenes with his lieutenant, a former FBI agent, have the give-and-take of the best police procedurals, and his encounters with Wise and another girlfriend crackle with sexual tension. But it is Gruber's ability to enliven diverse religious practices whether Paz's long-delayed participation in his mother's Santeria rituals or Dideroff's exploits with the SBC that makes "Valley of Bones" and the series something worth savoring and his name one that stands quite nicely on its own.  



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