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Cold Shoulder by Lydia LaPlante

In Cold Shoulder, Lydia LaPlante is hard on her characters, and therefore she's hard on us. LaPlante is probably best known in this country as creator of the popular, Emmy-award winning PBS-TV series Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren, based on three of her novels. Prime Suspect features a perfectionistic female police detective, attempting to apply her awesome investigative skills to a series of violent crimes, while at the same time trying to break into a hostile, heretofore all-male world. We grieve for the crime victims, sorry for their innocent suffering, and we grieve for our heroine, slogging upstream against collegial opposition rather than support.

The materials, images and expressions in LaPlante's earlier work are purely British, and there was justifiable speculation on how she could transfer her gritty story telling to California. The answer is, flawlessly. If any British-isms slipped into Cold Shoulder, they escaped my careful read, as both major and minor characters appeared to me to be strictly LA.

Our heroine in Cold Shoulder, Lorraine Paige, is also an obsessive police detective, with even worse opposition from colleagues-she is in fact ejected from her job and thrown out on her own into dire circumstances early in the novel, a good cop washed out.

Like her predecessor, the Paige character cannot succeed at her personal life, driving away the love she deeply wants in the form of attentive lovers and caring family members, simply by having no time for them. It is when piecing together solutions to crimes that she feels most alive, and since no person, no matter how noble, sweet or kind can give forever without response, Paige is often alone.

LaPlante's observations are without mercy. The police locker room isn't just unkempt, it is, "stinking of feet and stale sweat;" Paige isn't just a smoker, she has a persistent cough, and her fingers are stained dark brown with nicotine. A character isn't just depressed, she's, "deeply ashamed she [doesn't] have the guts to slit her wrists." Others drink alcohol, not just to forget, but to, "hide the pain in [their] animal eyes." Even Paige's allies-the enthusiastic and helpful Rosie, her AA sponsor, Jake, and others-are chronically described in terms of their weight. They arrive with "thudding steps and heavy breathing," settle their "ample backsides" into oversmall chairs, and have arms thrown around their, "fat shoulders." In being forced to see the flaws of LaPlante's characters with such harsh clarity, we naturally are forced to see our own. Beware all readers who don't visit the gym three times a week.

As one who last saw a gym in high school, however, I forgive LaPlante her fierce descriptions for two reasons: first, despite several unrealistically quick emotional swings, her characters remain fully human and real; second, she is one hell of a storyteller. Cold Shoulder unfolds compellingly and cinematically--the novel was optioned for the movies by Michelle Pfeiffer/20th Century Fox, however, as of this date it has not appeared in theaters.

In bringing Cold Shoulder to its conclusion, LaPlante avoids the many opportunities the story offers for some version of, "...and they lived happily ever after," in favor of a mixed outcome, some good and some bad, with probably more of the same to follow. Sort of like life.

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