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The Blue Edge of Midnight, Jonathon King, Onyx, $6.99 and Visible Darkness, Dutton, $23.95.

The Blue Edge of Midnight by Jonathon King

We have an old display sign for Steve Hamilton at the store that says "Michael Conelly, Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Kellerman - they all won it and look what happened to them!" What it's referring to is the Edgar for best first novel, and to that list of luminaries we're going to have to add another name, Jonathon King. His book The Blue Edge of Midnight took the mystery world by storm, and rightfully so. its setup is similar to Hamilton's prizewinner, A Cold Day in Paradise, with a cop involved in a mind boggling shooting in a Northern City, but in King's book the cop, instead of fleeing farther north to find isolation goes south, way south, all the way to the Florida Everglades. King's protagonist Max Freeman (who always seems to want to become a free man to the max) holes up in an old shack miles from nowhere, seeking to escape the demons of his Philadelphia past by living the life of a hermit and obsessively canoeing the turgid streams of the area. Unfortunately civilization drags him back again the day he finds a dead child on the riverbank and makes himself a major suspect in the murder.

Max is a natural cop, the descendant of a long line of cops, and he's soon seeking the serial killer with the same determination he had been seeking oblivion. Freeman is a great character, filled with righteous anger and great strength combined with appealing stoicism and self effacement. His frustration at being not only on the outside of the investigation but, even worse, the focus of it are presented with an understated precision. Finally, of course, he's one on one with the killer, who's violated the pristine Everglades he's grown to love.

Such an isolated, antisocial character is an appealing one to all of us so entangled in the modern world and its web of demanding social and business relationships, a living embodiment of the common fantasy of radical simplification - he's got no lawn to maintain, no appliances to break down, no boss or spouse to answer to. Finding a corpse jolts him back to humanity, but in a series the question becomes how to confront the complex cultural conundrum of homicide without losing the unique qualities that intrigued in the first place. King is no victim of the sophomore slump, however, and his second book, A Visible Darkness, continues the thread of The Blue Edge of Midnight in an eminently satisfying way.

Visible Darkness by Jonathon King

This time it's Billy Manchester, Max's attorney and old Philadelphia friend and connection to society who drags Max back to civilized madness. In the previous book Billy was an invaluable help to Max, but this time he needs Max's skills to solve a problem that's been preying on him. A group of respectable but poor black women have been dying at home in some of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia of apparently natural causes, but Billy's well developed sixth sense tells him that there's something more to the story, especially since all the women had recently sold off their sizeable insurance policies. The police have worse problems in these hell holes, and it's not until a would be victim survives a horrific assault that they begin to take Max's investigation seriously, but once again he's forced to face and defeat the evil himself.

For me the most appealing part of the book is Max's re-discovery of the visible darkness in his own soul, the part of him that seeks out the shadows, that feels more at home with the disenfranchised and outcast, that recognizes the cop's affinity for the criminal. Although he's comfortable in the complete isolation of the swamp, he needs the urban jungle too, the Darwinian struggle a little closer to home. I found the switch from first to third person in the narrative distracting and unnecessary, but that's my pet peeve and my only quibble with this strong book.

King's writing style is the deceptively simple kind that takes untold work to seem so natural and unaffected. The challenge for him in continuing the series will be to maintain the tension between Max's isolation and his growing assimilation into his Florida environment. After all, he's already got a girlfriend while Hamilton's similarly misanthropic Alex McKnight refuses himself even the consolation of a pet! But given the excellence of the first two books it's fairly certain King will continue Max's adventures with the same verve and inventiveness, proving that, despite the frequent grousing, the Edgar givers often do know what they're doing.

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