Picks and Pans Review: Night Secrets

updated 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Thomas H. Cook

Frank Clemons is a private investigator who likes his caseload heavy and his clients shady. A onetime Atlanta cop, Clemons has resettled in New York City. There, he restlessly stalks the streets looking for a respite from what seems a troubled past.

When we first meet him, Clemons is spending his days tailing Virginia Phillips, a woman cheating on her wealthy husband. His nights are reserved for a Gypsy lady with a catchy name—the Puri Dai—accused of killing a fortune-teller. The two cases seem to have little in common, but to a sly PI like Clemons, life is—more often than not-connected by the chain link of coincidence.

This is Cook's third Clemons novel; all have been nocturnal forages through grim and dangerous cities. Like most private eyes (the fictional kind, anyway), Clemons is a lonely man whose only human connections are with people either heading for danger or trying to escape it. In Clemons's circles there's always somebody somewhere with something or someone to hide, and he is adept at finding out what it is:

'The Puri Dai did not speak.

" 'Was it some kind of argument?" Frank asked.

"Silence.

" 'If it was an argument, what was it over?'

"She did not answer.

" 'Money?'

"She glared at him resentfully, but still remained silent.

" 'Where were you when you killed her?' Frank went on insistently.

"She stood up. 'I must go.'

" 'Were you in front of her?' Frank demanded. 'Did you stab her?'

"The Puri Dai's face grew rigid.

" 'What did you use to do it with?'

" 'A razor,' she shot back angrily. 'A razor.'

" 'Where'd it come from?'

" 'I must go.'

" 'Three women lived in that place,' Frank said. 'What were they doing with a straight razor?' His eyes bore into her. 'Who else was living with you?'

"She seemed suddenly frightened, stricken. 'No one.' "

Night Secrets is a mystery where the fun is less in finding out who did it and why it was done than in following the characters through the deceitful maze of their lives.

It's a good thing, too, because Cook is no Elmore Leonard as far as clever plotting goes. His strength is his ability to shine a high-watt bulb on the sinister parts of humanity—here on the enigma of the Puri Dai (who grows more ominous by the page).

Clemons himself is a rare, bizarrely fascinating creation, not so much burned-out from his work as burned by the world he lives in. He's a PI with a social conscience, a fully drawn character.

These ingredients, combined with an acute sense of place and a true feel for the ugliness and squalor of urban chaos, make Night Secrets a worthwhile, if disturbing, book. Now if Clemons would only lighten up a little, this series could really go places. (Putnam, $19.95)

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