By Solomon Jones

Minotaur Books

256 pp. $23.95 nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Elizabeth Wellington

To read a Solomon Jones book is to become so engrossed with the pictures in your mind's eye - the gritty action in Philadelphia alleys, the salacious sex, and the dirty dealings in dark bars - that you can't put it down until you are finished.

This is definitely the case in Payback, the critically acclaimed author's fifth novel. Payback is the sequel to Jones' previous novel, C.R.E.A.M., the story of Karima "Cream" Thomas. Karima is a Philadelphia-bred twentysomething who, despite being from a politically well-connected family, can't escape her ghetto tendencies.

Her dealings with her notorious drug-dealer boyfriend, Dwayne Faison, land her in jail. In C.R.E.A.M., she's released but immediately gets mixed up in the murder of a mayor. At the end of the book, Dwayne and one of his cronies are dead.

Payback opens two months after Dwayne's murder. In that time, Karima has repaired her estranged relationship with her mother and is trying to move forward. As she stands before a judge, waiting to find out if she's going to stand trial for Dwayne's murder, her mother is attacked outside the courtroom.

And with that, the 22-year-old divalicious heroine is thrust into a craziness that includes drugs, murder, and psychotic relatives. Karima, as expected, spends the rest of the novel searching for payback.

The book is a great read. If there is one thing Jones, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist and former Philadelphia Weekly columnist, knows, it's the local streets. His deft description of back alleys and corner bars puts the reader right there. We smell the smoke, hear the wheels screech, wince when gunshots are fired.

The plot twists don't disappoint. The seemingly steamy relationship between Karima and straitlaced Detective Kevin Lynch was a shocker. The introduction of new characters - FBI agent Troy Williams and emerging drug dealer Heads - keeps the reader guessing: What are these fools going to do next? Even though City Hall employee Regina Brown is as crooked as they come, we're sad when she gets her comeuppance.

And we are introduced to Skeet, a 13-year-old street hustler. It is through this character we see that Jones really understands the pathology of the city. Skeet is completely dismissed by the system and his family. Even when a life of crime seems to be the only way out, Skeet tries to avoid it. His ways may be nefarious, but Skeet is a survivor. I can't wait to see how Jones further develops his character in forthcoming books.

But for all that's great about Payback, Jones drops the ball with Karima, his heroine. Jones describes Karima as alluring, but her actions are pouty, and there is nothing sexy about that. There is just no evolution of her character. I'm taking into account that the novel's time frame is only a day, but still, it's disappointing that Jones doesn't make use of more backstory to give us more of her personal development.

Maybe Jones assumes the reader remembers everything about Karima from the previous novel. Sadly, Karima, a chickenhead with heart, just reads like a plain old chickenhead this time around, and I'm left with too many questions about her: among them, how she feels about her miserable Aunt Marilyn.

Nonetheless, Payback is a page-turner, and, as promised, surprises and pleasures are neatly doled out. But we need more than a salty attitude and a Bottega Veneta clutch to accept that Karima is as bad as Jones would have you believe.