'Simple' does it: Kathleen George continues to make Pittsburgh delightfully lurid


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Mike Connolly has problems. He's about to run for governor yet yearns to disappear. He loves his quiet time yet spends countless strained hours as a party host. He's in lust, if not love, with a beautiful young intern. And of course, he's married.

Cal Hathaway has problems, too. He has a history of blackouts due to injuries, including deafness in one ear, suffered in childhood at the hands of school bullies. He's often taken to be "simple." And he's in jail.


"SIMPLE"
By Kathleen George
Minotaur Books ($24.99).

Mike and Cal are the counterweights in Kathleen George's new Pittsburgh-set police procedural featuring a returning cast of familiar faces: Detectives Colleen Greer and John Potocki and homicide chief Richard Christie. This novel is the sixth Pittsburgh crime novel by Ms. George, by day a theater and writing professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "Simple" is fast-paced, pitting, in different ways, Mike, Cal and the homicide crew against an amoral villain hiding in plain sight.

Of the main characters, I was most drawn to Cal, a shy, introspective man who discovers hidden strengths when tested in the frightening bedlam of incarceration. Accused falsely of murder, he nevertheless wonders about his innocence. Could he have killed during a blackout? He retraces his actions step-by-methodical-step to assure himself he did not.

Cal's relationship with his mother, Elinor, was the strongest of the connections among all the characters. She wonders, too, if her son could be guilty and yet cannot bring herself to suggest it to him. In protecting him too much as a child, did she make him the naive loner he became as a man?

Mike Connolly was less well drawn -- the stereotype of political golden boy with girl trouble is just too familiar. I didn't care about his problems, even in the face of his pangs of conscience that Cal, whose mother works for him, may be unjustly accused.

Despite that, the structure that keeps Mike and Cal treading cautious, parallel paths toward their fates nicely balances the detectives' and the villains' increasingly desperate moves. Both find measures of redemption by the novel's end.

So, by now you may be wondering, who's the corpse? It should come as no surprise that it is the beautiful intern, Cassie Price. A law student who lives in Oakland, Cassie falls for the wrong guy, although it's suggested that unattainable guys turn her on. When Cal, her neighbor, finds her body, she's just spent an evening being persuaded, with the help of margaritas at the swanky Shadyside restaurant Casbah, to leave Connolly alone because he's meant for bigger things. Cassie, too, was hard to get a handle on because she is described by so many different characters. In one exchange between Mike and his manager, she is reduced to this:

"She was young. She was naive."

"Not very."

"She was beautiful."

"She was a bitch."

"Simple" is my introduction to Kathleen George's detective series, and it's fun to follow the cast around familiar places on the North Side, Oakland and the East End. Still, even if you are a Kathleen George first-timer, the tale is self-contained enough that you never feel on unfamiliar ground. These people eat well, too: Sweet-potato ravioli with butter sage dressing from Legume on a stakeout! My main quibble was staccato dialogue. People just don't carry on too many conversations in terse, declarative sentences.

Toward the end, as the noose around the over-confident murderer tightens, the pacing slowed down and then sped up to a satisfying conclusion.

Fun fact: Features the tiniest ever witness in the history of mystery.

bookreviews

Katy Buchanan is a Post-Gazette page designer (kbuchanan@post-gazette.com).


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