RANCHO MARIA by Jerry Oster


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Murder, black-comic mayhem, and decadence chic in a super-posh California community--as Oster (Sweet Justice, Municipal Bonds) again demonstrates a strong talent for clever talk and hip atmosphere, but little aptitude for mystery-suspense plotting. Corpses are popping up all over exclusive Rancho Maria de la Luz--starting with a dead stranger on the beach, soon identified as Israeli mobster Joseph Litvak. Then tycoon Felix Beaufils, at a bash to launch his production of California champagne, drops dead after being zapped with a champagne cork: an apparent accident. But less convincingly accidental is the death of womanizing gynecologist Dr. Patrick Wade, found wearing lingerie and bondage, a supposed victim of ""autoerotic asphyxia."" And definitely not an accident is the shooting of one Milo Mularky, agent for a top hit-man called ""El Bozo,"" by that gorgeous new widow Portia Beaufils. What's going on here? Are all these deaths linked? Are they connected to a local dam controversy, the faltering health of the Beaufils empire, the porno-secrets in Dr. Wade's videotape collection, and/or the WW II secret in Beaufils' past? Well, as you might expect, the answers--involving no less than six culprits--come in a murky, unsatisfactory clump at the end. (As one character says, ""It's hard to keep it all together, isn't it? Just goes around and around."") But Oster's primary sleuth is laconically cool and wry: handsome Lieut. Sam Branch of the Rancho Maria Police--former New Yorker (a casualty of an NYPD scandal), former lover of the widow Beaufils, current victim of a frame-up. The supporting cast--including liberated (smart-alecky) ladies, stuttering creeps, beach-boys, and pornostars--is densely colorful. And while suspense fans will probably be intrigued, then irritated, then disappointed, a more rarefied readership can take some pleasure in Oster's show-offy allusions, his satirical culture-watching (brand names, movie plots, song titles), and his compulsive digressions into ironic repartee and arch phrase-making. (""Time didn't exist in southern California; with its handmaidens, History and Tradition, and its Daughter, Truth, it had been paved over."")

Pub Date: March 5th, 1986
Publisher: Harper & Row