Where Angels Watch, Randall Wallace

Bantam Crime Line, 1992, 323 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29254-4

If you’re a movie buff, the name “Randall Wallace” should mean something to you. He wrote the screenplays for the Oscar-winning BRAVEHEART and the execrable PEARL HARBOUR. He directed WE WERE SOLDIERS from his own script. He’s buddy with Mel Gibson. In short, he’s what we’d call a Hollywood insider.

It’s not a secret that he didn’t start out that way. His biographies (check out his sort-of-official web site at www.thewheelhouse.net ) mention that he wrote a few novels before breaking into the Hollywood big-time in the mid-nineties. Finding those novels, however, isn’t an easy matter given that they didn’t sell all that well and are almost all out-of-print by now.

I was lucky enough to catch Where Angels Watch at a used book sale. It’s the second novel in a series (technically a sequel starring the characters from Blood of the Lamb, though with a presumably brand-new all-exciting villain!), but I couldn’t very well wait and hope to find the first novel anytime soon, so I dove right in.

In many ways, this is a strictly-business police thriller. In Los Angeles, a killer preys on hookers and strippers, leaving them dismembered and displayed as an unmistakable challenge to police forces. Protagonists Tom Ridge and Scarlet McCullers are now faced with a new mystery—and a killer than may be a policeman…

I’m sure you’ve read something similar before. It’s not exactly original. But there’s always some place for a well-written entry, and that’s exactly what Where Angels Watch manages to be.

It all depends on a pair of sympathetic protagonists: Tom Ridge is a by-the-book policeman with some religious training and a mind like a computer. Everyone is a bit in awe of his cognitive capabilities, and indeed, he often intuits clues and conclusions well before the experts can confirm what he’s already deduced. The only person not afraid to try to one-up Ridge is, of course, “Cully” McCullers. She’s brasher, more willing to throw suspects around and always trying to prove her worth. Together, they make an unstoppable team. Except that… they’ve been together -in a biblical sense- and that only complicates matters.

It still wouldn’t have worked if Wallace hadn’t been able to give the required spark to his characters. But he does, and also manages to deliver a good crunchy police thriller with plenty of tasty passages. This being L.A., we get a look at the city’s biggest industry, the relationships between police and celebrities, a believable look inside a police precinct and all sorts of other good stuff.

Wallace’s writing is clear and easily readable. Even better; he also succeeds in wringing honest emotion out of passages that would be booed off the stage in any other context. (Though even he can’t make the ridiculous strip-tease scene work.) I could explain the meaning of the novel’s title to you in a few words, but then you’d look at the screen with a look of corny disbelief. But Wallace manages, and that’s all that matter when you’re reading the novel. (On the other hand, it may explain why Michael Bay’s ham-fisted triumphant direction made such a mess out of PEARL HARBOR’s sentimental scenes. But I digress.)

Understand that I’m not raving about this novel; for all its qualities, it doesn’t come close to, say, Michael Connelly’s work. But it’s good stuff, it sticks to the point and it delivers what it’s supposed to. Plus it’s got curiosity value; how many novels on your shelves have been written by acclaimed screenwriters/directors?

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