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    PANICKING RALPH by Bill James


    W.W. Norton and Co., 1997(U.K.), 2001(U.S.)

    Police Chief Mark Lane has a vision of a drug-free city--a vision that may be possible with the death of drug pin Knapp. While Assistant Chief Iles has his doubts on whether keeping the city drug-free is possible, or even desirable, Chief Detective Harpur buys into the notion--even to the point of going underground without orders and infiltrating one of the new syndicates formed to take advantage of Knapp’s death.

    Ralph Ember (Panicking Ralph) has waited his entire life for the opportunity to make it big. Knapp’s death opens that opportunity and he is resolved not to miss the chance--no matter that he has a little problem with panic attacks. Yet he is torn between his ambition and that part of his self-image that cries out for revenge for the mistress murdered while they were making love on the beach.

    PANICKING RALPH tells the story of the psychological and physical warfare waging between the police, Ember’s group, and the syndicate headed by Stan Stanfield. Each group maneuvers to use the other groups against one another hoping to be left the only group standing. Ember’s analogy to Tito’s Yugoslavia becomes more and more accurate as violence mounts.

    Bill James (see more reviews of novels by James) is a talented author and story teller. In PANICKING RALPH, James develops the continuing characters of Panicking Ralph and Harpur. Iles, who can be counted on for his cutting wit and complete lack of morality, plays a smaller role in this novel than in others in the series. Harpur’s calculation of the odds of Iles being straight (about 60 percent) hits directly on one of the most powerful attributes of the series--a complete lack of moral dimension within the police department itself.

    The reduced role for Iles eliminates many (but not all) of the laugh-out-loud moments common in other books in the series as well as some of the truly spine-chilling thoughts. Still, although PANICKING RALPH is not the best book in this series, any HARPUR AND ILES MYSTERY is worth savoring.

    Three Stars

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