cover image The Portland Laugher

The Portland Laugher

Earl Emerson. Ballantine Books, $20 (344pp) ISBN 978-0-345-38485-0

Romance and a series of murders and assaults stretching into the past command the attention of Seattle detective Thomas Black, last seen in Yellow Dog Party, in his engrossing fourth case. Black is overjoyed when asked by Mrs. Roxanne Lake to follow Philip Bacon, who is engaged to Kathy Birchfield, the lawyer whom Black loves. Bacon is trailing Billy Battle, an ex-con, and Mrs. Lake wants Black to make sure that the two men stay away from each other. Bacon, with vigilante justice on his mind, has bought a gun and is taking shooting lessons from Black's friend and associate Elmer ``Snake'' Slezak. While gleefully uncovering his rival's checkered past, Black realizes there's a mad killer on the loose who might be Billy Battle but could also be Philip Bacon-a killer responsible for the disappearance and death of a teenage girl years ago-and also, perhaps, for the murder of Mrs. Lake's last husband. Told in flashback by a badly injured Black as he tries to remember how he got in the hospital, the story features a superbly worked-out plot, a narrator with a likable voice and Emerson's clean, witty prose. Author tour. (Oct.)