THE VAN by John Ball


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Ball's final novel (he died last October) is a sorry testament: neither is it one of his popular Virgil Tibbs mysteries (In the Heat of the Night, etc.) nor an addition to his Jack Tallon series, but a lumbering police procedural--loosely based on a real L.A. serial-killer case--saved from amateurism only by tight attention to cop-detail. "It is the intention of this work," writes Ball in a short note, "to give an accurate accounting of homicide investigation as it is done today by the best professionals. . ." Ball fulfills that intention--albeit at the expense of vital storytelling--both through his dull, textbook-like coverage of the efforts of Lt. Ralph Mott of the L.A. Homicide Bureau to solve a series of torture-mutilation rape/murders, and through the saintly cast he bestows upon Mott & Co. Parallel to Mott's quest runs the investigation of Mott (in bed and out) by big-breasted (a major plot point) college-sociologist Flavia Alvarez de la Torre, who tags along with the cop as research for her book about parole violators; we see the unfolding of Mott's manhunt largely through her awe-struck eyes. Meanwhile, there's little mystery about the killings themselves, of white teen-age girls by a pair of lowlifes (and performed mostly off-page, in typically demure Ball fashion). But in a mild twist, presumably signalling a significant departure by Ball from the real-life case, one of the killers turns out to be a student of the buxom Flavia; after she recognizes his voice from a sadistic audio tape of the killings, she agrees to bait her killer/student by wearing a tight sweater. One Keystone Kop foul-up leads to another, ending with Flavia trapped with the killer, a knife to her throat. . . Lots of neat procedural and forensic data (e.g., that semen glows under ultraviolet light) don't make up for puppet-show plotting and characters, and wooden prose. For Ball completists only.

Pub Date: March 22nd, 1989
ISBN: 312-02667-6
Publisher: St. Martin's
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