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"False dawn" is an atmospheric anomaly which causes the observer to believe that sunrise is about to peek over the horizon---at 3 AM. As a metaphor for illusion, Paul Levine could have picked no better title for this, his third Jake Lassiter novel, in which nothing is as it appears.
Jake, Levine's comic hero ex-linebacker, ex-Public Defender, ex-a-lot-of-things, is initially hired to defend small-time hood Francisco Crespo on a murder charge. As Jake investigates the circumstances, he realizes that Crespo is not only Not Guilty of killing fellow longshoreman Vladimir Smorodinsky---he is clearly innocent, having been unconscious at the time of the killing. Yet, Crespo seems willing to take the rap. Jake asks him why---and Crespo is shortly thereafter found dead.
Jake's hunt for the truth, which takes up the entire second half of the book, quickly begins to resemble a bucket full of freshly-dug earthworms.
It seems that Crespo's employer, Japanese industrialist and art collector Matsuo Yagamata has business contacts in Moscow, and that Crespo's killer is a man named Kharchenko aka former KGB man Stankevich, and that the CIA's man on the scene, Foley, is an art thief or just maybe it's all been bought and paid for and is in safekeeping, and that Jake's new girl, the stunning blonde sailboarder Jillian from Minnesota is really a Finnish agent, Eva Lisa from Helsinki, and that the Cuban patriot-Exilado Severo Soto and his daughter Lourdes are really working for the CIA, or possibly it's the KGB, or it might be Fidel Castro, or maybe not, and that the Faberge egg at the center of it all is a forgery, or maybe only a rock, shades of THE MALTESE FALCON.
In short, the plot has more twists and turns than the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. A simple double-cross doesn't exist anywhere in the world of FALSE DAWN, but there are too many sextuple and septuple-crosses going on to count.
Poor Jake, who incessantly seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, complains more than once that he can't tell the good guys from the bad guys and the players without a scorecard. He isn't the only one struggling with this overwrought story, which sags dangerously low under the weight of its plot.
Levine's audacious attempt to write a good old-fashioned Cold War espionage tale doesn't quite make the grade. The reader becomes lost in this rococo tale of patriotism and betrayal; I imagined Levine writing with a flow chart at his side, and wished I'd had one to follow along (never a good wish in light fiction). Levine totally loses control of the story about two-thirds of the way through and it avalanches toward a denoument that leaves the reader with an unsatisfying sense of ends left loose.
Rather than drawing his characters in simple black and white, Levine chooses to paint in various shades of gray. Without clear right and wrong archetypes, in the end FALSE DAWN leaves the reader feeling just as dazed as Lassiter himself.
Still, Jake Lassiter remains a sympathetic and likeable character. Levine's barbed observations about life in the social hodgepodge that is South Florida always ring true, from the Exilados to the Marielitos to the Russians, the Blacks and the Jews; not to overlook the Finns in Lake Worth. As bizarre as it all seems, we locals know these people exist as Levine presents them.
FALSE DAWN, though by far not Levine's best work, remains more than the sum of its parts.