‘Murder Season’: a terrific sick-soul-of-L.A. thriller

In old-fashioned movies and books, we love professional and amateur sleuths who are faced with a pool of likely suspects and then carefully sift through motives and alibis until they find out who did it.

Guilt is taken very seriously in those stories and the perp isn’t named until there is no room for doubt.

In reality, however, the cops and prosecutors tend to zero in on the first and most obvious murder suspect and then start building their case. The last thing you want to tell a police detective or assistant district attorney is that there are one or two or more people still out there who had the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime. Since the pre-trial press coverage of a murder case is usually powered by the police and prosecution, their scenario is hammered into the public’s consciousness .  

The new Robert Ellis thriller, “Murder Season” (St. Martin’s Press), balances the reality of high profile murder cases with a wonderful protagonist — L.A. police detective Lena Gamble — who doesn’t buy the official story in what her superiors would like to write off as a cut-and-dried revenge murder.

Gamble is called to a hip celebrity nightclub in the wee hours after two dead bodies are found in an office — the very connected owner of the nightspot and a young man who, just a few months earlier, avoided being convicted of a brutal slaying when evidence tampering shot holes in the prosecutor’s case and the jury found him not guilty.

The press and the city were outraged by the O.J.-like verdict and not only assume that the dead girl’s father killed the young man, but are ready to applaud him for taking the law into his own hands.

Lena has doubts about the father killing the young man and that leads to her looking into the case of the dead girl.

She quickly sees that the investigation of the murder of Lily Haight was mishandled right from the start: “Both detectives jumped early. Both detectives locked in on their suspects without bothering to interview anyone who might have given them a deeper perspective and widened their view.”

Before you can say “Chinatown” we are immersed in a tale of mind-boggling corruption where virtually every character in the book — with the exception of Lena — has a hidden agenda.

Ellis is a master plotter who keeps triggering surprises at regular intervals in Lena’s investigation so that most readers will race through the story to find out who is really pulling the strings in this complex two-case mystery.

Along the way we meet wonderful characters including one of Gamble’s most world weary mentors, the celebrity defense attorney Buddy Paladino, who shares with Lena a bit of advice he heard from the father of his college roommate several decades earlier:

“He told us that we needed to keep our eyes open. That there are a lot of nice people in this world — lots of nice people — but that doesn’t mean they’re good. Good is special. Good is very rare. You might only meet one or two, three or four, in your whole life. That’s why you’ve got to keep your eyes open. You can’t afford to miss one.”

“Murder Season” is the first novel that I’ve read by Ellis and I was very happy to learn that it is the third book in a series featuring Lena Gamble. I can’t wait to read “City of Fire” and “The Lost Witness.”