BOOK REVIEW / A landscape of pimps and police: Cold shoulder - Lynda la Plante: Macmillan, pounds 14.99: Sarah Dunant finds drama and charisma in the new thriller by Lynda la Plante

IN SOME ways Lynda la Plante is the Peter Snow of female thriller writers; a real professional who is not afraid to explore and enjoy the more unsavoury aspects of the job, in her case the sleaze, the guns and the violence. As a popular television dramatist she is extraordinarily talented, with a nose for near-perfect thriller structure, the ability to create absolutely credible strong female characters and the kind of dialogue, especially in scenes of interrogation or confrontation, that walks off the page straight into BAFTA awards. It is, therefore, something of a disappointment to find that she is much less sure-footed when it comes to keeping the plot between hard covers.

Cold Shoulder is her third thriller and it will, no doubt, like the others, be a best-seller. Set in and around Los Angeles, it tells the story of Lorraine Page, a tough woman cop who hits Skid Row after her partner dies and she takes to the bottle, killing an unarmed black kid on the streets.

After a vicious descent into an alcoholic hooker's hell she sets out to go straight, at the same time finding herself drawn into a cycle of serial murders as a witness (and almost a potential victim) who doesn't want to go the police. Her journey to track down the killer becomes the journey by which she also rebuilds herself.

It is, in many ways, familiar La Plante territory. Despite the West Coast setting, its landscape of police interrogation rooms, pimps, pornography, transvestites and blackmail could easily be that of Prime Suspect, where a number of those ingredients tend to be present. That much is forgiveable. It is, however, less easy to overlook the faults in the story.

In structural terms, the opening 20 pages of the novel, which recapitulate Page's broken marriage and descent into hell, read more like a false start than a strong beginning And the plot, at first glance a complex snail-trail of leads and double loops, actually turns out to be dependent on an alarming number of coincidences. Our heroine just happens to meet at least four of the central players in the story while getting her biggest 'clue' from a completely unconnected one-off visit to her ex-husband's home. As Oscar Wilde might have said, to have one coincidence is destiny, to have five or six is plain lazy.

Cold Shoulder is at its best when La Plante is on the firm dramatic ground of police interrogations and the struggles of a desperate woman to get off the bottle. She is also good on the difficult, often aggressive friendship which her heroine builds up with another ex-alcoholic, Rosie. It is at times like this that you can almost hear Helen Mirren's voice, giving the book and its central character both strength and charisma.

She is much less successful on love. Given that she is usually so powerfully unsentimental, the arrival (coincidence again) of the gorgeous, well-endowed, millionaire ladies' man, Brad Thorson, is a severe disappointment. It may be that blockbuster thrillers need sex, but it brings with it not only some of the most cliched writing in the book - 'His arms tightened around her, until her weeping subsided and she lifted her lips to him. This time, his kiss was not gentle but passionate, hard and crushing, and she responded' - but also a lingering sense of emotional dishonesty.

In comparison with the average thriller, these problems still don't make Cold Shoulder a bad book. But, given Lynda La Plante's obvious talent as a popular writer, it should have been a much better one.

(Photograph omitted)

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