Parker slides into a gentle sophomore slump with his second mystery thriller. For all its deep characters and exotic action, this byzantine tale of Vietnam-seeded intrigue--set like his first in Orange County, Cal.--lacks the pungent ironies and manual-tight police procedures that made Laguna Heat such a fabulous and popular read. Part of the problem is that, despite his bumbling charms, hero Chuck Frye, ex-reporter and surfing star, scion of Laguna's wealthiest family, simply isn't as gripping a hero as Laguna Heat's cop hero. Parker compensates somewhat, however, by setting Chuck's adventures mostly within Orange County's huge and vastly intriguing Vietnamese community. Chuck's link to this clannish brood is lovely Li, Vietnamese wife of his older brother, Benny, war hero--he lacks the legs to prove it--and ace real-estate developer. When Li, a folk heroine to the community for her freedom songs, is kidnapped during a fete, the Frye family galvanizes to get her back. Trouble for Chuck is, Benny and his tyrannical dad just want him to stay out of the way: after all, he was the one swimming with little sister when she drowned 20 years before. That burden of guilt impels Chuck to search for Li, and before long he's deep in a self-made mess, finding and then losing the Vietnamese teen hood possibly behind the snatch, losing a videotape Benny's asked him to stash, and landing in jail when the local cops decide he's just too meddlesome. An affair with the new blond on the block soothes Chuck for a bit, but soon he jumps back into the muck, digging up evidence of a plot by old family friends and Vietnamese gangsters to use stolen monies to fund a real-estate deal, and finally unearthing Li's real kidnapper--a freedom-fighter-turned-commie betrayed by Benny in Vietnam. Par for California thrillers, here the sins of the past ravage the present, and after final bloodbaths Chuck has lost his brother but refound his pride, that blond, and entrÃ‰e into his family. The Chandleresque plotting is so coiled as to nearly implode at times, and Chuck's redemption is too expected; withal, Parker remains a vivid stylist and an ultra-acute observer of California ways, with this uneven but still memorable work further proof that he's no flash in the pan, but a glowing fixture in the thriller firmament.