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Los Angeles Times Book Review

Friday, June 30th, 2006

A Detectives Case Cops an Added Layer of Intrigue

By Carmela Ciuraru

Special to The Times

Strange Bedfellows: a Charlotte Justice Novel

Paula L. woods

One World/Ballantine Books

258pp., $23.95

In Plotting and pacing, “Strange Bedfellows,” the fourth in the series of Charlotte Justice novels by Paula L. Woods, follows the usual conventions of mystery fiction. Yet there’s something undeniably subversive (and appealing) about this series, especially in how the author explores gender and race relations within the notoriously troubled LAPD. That the smart, resilient Los Angeles homicide detective at its center is a strong African-American woman adds a layer of intrigue and complexity to what might be an otherwise familiar whodunit.

In “Strange Bedfellows,” Woods unravels a suspenseful narrative that on the surface deals with a recently revived cold case involving the drive-by shooting of an ultraconservative Republican businessman named Chuck Zuccari, his black Muslim business partner, Malik Shareef, and their wives. (The Zuccaris’ relationships, both business and familial, are not what they seem.)

As ever, though, the most compelling story is internal, within the haunted mind of Det. Justice. You might compare her to Tony Soprano: Although she’s solving murders rather than ordering or committing them, she is similarly intense, traumatized, stubborn and also reluctantly seeing a shrink, Pablo Wychowski, who patiently coaxes her along.

“Before and after was the way I had come to measure my life, the space beyween them an abyss I’d struggled for years to cross,” Justice reflects. “I knew firsthand how happiness could be destroyed and our souls sent to hell in an instant by a loved one taking the wrong flight, driving a different route to work, or getting caught standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The detective has been sidelined from the elite squad for psychological problems, and it’s up to Dr. P., as she calls him, to recommend whether she’s fit to serve on active duty again. Among the scars Justice carries is the memory of her husband, Keith, and daughter Erica, who were killed in the driveway of their home during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, a cataclysmic event woods covered in her impressive 1999 debut novel, “Inner City Blues.”

There’s no question that the mystery genre has its clichés, some of which pop up in “Strange Bedfellows.” There is Thor, a tough-talking, un-PC supervisor with whom Justice clashes. She chews antacid tablets like candy and loves single-malt scotch. And, of course, there’s the web of secrets and lies to sort through in order to solve the Zuccari case.

But Woods adds provocative elements: She corrects common assumptions about black Muslims, probes the seedy entanglements of corporate America and quotes Harlem renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Most notably, she places her black female cop protagonist in therapy, which, as with Tony Soprano, makes Justice so nuanced and appealing a character.

To her credit, Woods, a native of Los Angeles (and occasional reviewer for The Times), is far from didactic; she slips in commentary about politics, race, and sexual discrimination here and there, but mostly she sticks to answering the questions raised in her well-crafted story line: Was the dive-by shooting the vengeful work of the Nation of Islam, incensed by a lucrative business deal with a white man? What are the true motives of Paul Taft, a shady FBI agent who gets involved in the case? And how will Justice work through her dysfunctional relationship with her intrusive family, or accept the love of her supportive boyfriend, Aubrey Scott? Most things are resolved, but not all.

Fortunately for her readers, Woods makes it clear that “Strange Bedfellows” isn’t the final installment in the series and that her troubled detective has a long way to go in therapy.



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