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Friday, May 23, 2008

The King of Methlehem (trade, $13.00), by Mark Lindquist

Set in Tacoma, Washington, The King of Methlehem describes with realistic detail -- sometimes overly so -- the scientific, criminal, and legal aspects of methamphetamine.

You probably know that Tacoma has been the breeding ground of some of America’s most notorious serial killers. What you may not know is that Tacoma also serves as Kitchen Central for a large number of meth cooks to concoct their deadly product. It has been easy for me to brush aside this reputation, because in my frequent visits to Tacoma, I’ve only seen the leafy comfort of the Proctor neighborhood or the rejuvenated downtown area on my way to see Dale Chihuly’s glass art. Lindquist does describe what I saw and what he obviously loves: the revitalized and charming small town that is increasingly becoming a carburbia to neighboring Seattle. It’s the rest of his book, based on an insider’s view, that sends shivers up my spine, because it displays with such an authentic voice the seedier and more dangerous aspects of Tacoma. Lindquist is the chief prosecuting attorney for Pierce County’s drug unit.

Wyatt James is a law school graduate who has chosen to become a police officer. His friend, Mike Lawson, is a prosecuting attorney. Together they approach the tidal wave of meth-related problems. Lindquist skillfully portrays their frustration with a system that is too overwhelmed or plodding to even begin to deal with it. Wyatt James, like his namesake Wyatt Earp, aims to clean up the town, one meth cook at a time. In his obsessive sights is a criminal whose real name is unknown, but who assumes the names of real-life famous people. The name he currently is using? Howard Schultz. The real Schultz is the head of Starbucks. The book is not without humor.

Lindquist peppers his book with quirky touches, and it is quite enjoyable. For example, lawyer Lawson unwinds from his demanding job with Zen meditation. In another instance, the author uses a friendly poker game to give us a lovely insight into his characters and human nature. Also, his ear for “relationship dialogue,” something that has undone many an author, is well tuned. The difficulty James has with balancing his relationship with his girlfriend, Suki, and his commitment to his job is portrayed with understanding.

The story unfolds in 235 pages, short by modern mystery writing standards, and could probably have benefited from being fleshed out a bit more. Some potentially interesting characters make a fleeting appearance, one feels in order for the author to honor a colleague or denigrate an acquaintance more than to add substance to the story. And some story points are given short shrift, For example, the aforementioned Suki is threatened by the story’s villain. Other than an unsuccessful attempt to call her boyfriend, she doesn’t appear to suffer undue angst. In what amounts to a throwaway line later in the book, she recounts the incident to James and receives barely a ripple of response in return. I think we are meant to read between the lines, to understand there is concern by all parties and that consequences will follow later, but I’m betting Lindquist’s words would have been better than my imagination.

Ah, but I quibble, because Lindquist’s words are clear and strong, laced with humor and thoughtfulness. Bad guy Howard labels himself the “King of Methlehem,” but James and Lawson fight to change Methlehem back into Tacoma. Their tale is a very readable inside look at a scary place.


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