DEATH OF A WARRIOR QUEEN. S. T. Haymon.
224 pages. $17.95.
In a field near the Norfolk coast of England, where the semi-legendary Queen Boadicea made her final stand against Roman might, a team of archaeologists is piecing together the history of her last days. Dreaming of golden hoards, they turn up little but potsherds and other ancient flotsam.
On a nearby beach, though, Inspector Benjamin Jurnet unearths something considerably more interesting. Annie Chance, whose mummified arm beckons him from a crumbled dune, is no warrior queen along Boadicean lines -- and she has not been dead nearly as long. But the local charwoman and waitress, seen by her neighbors as both proud and slutty, has had her own battles to fight, among them the single-handed raising of a mentally retarded son.
Once they get to know the characters, those familiar with the genre won't have much difficulty figuring out who killed the outcast Annie. Why is a different matter, though. S. T. Haymon (whose sixth Jurnet mystery this is) often is compared to Martha Grimes and P. D. James, and like them she adds hard, sharp edges to the comfortable features of the village mystery. Introducing such elements as AIDS, sexual perversity and greasy-spoon diners into the Miss Marple world of eccentric townsfolk and tweedy, preserved-in-amber traditions creates a tension and wit that makes "Death of a Warrior Queen" a particularly satisfying example of the contemporary English detective story. Keep in mind as you read this chilling tale of sinister city planning the old saw "united we stand, divided we fall." In 1967, the city of Boston implemented what seemed, at the time, to be an ambitious, honorable desegregation program.
It was decided that banks would actively attempt to make mortgage loans available to blacks only on properties in the long-established Jewish neighborhood of Dorchester, not in Irish and Italian neighborhoods. The rationale was that the Jews were known to be more tolerant.
Real estate agents put the plan into effect by playing on the Jewish community's fears, which the agents often created by holding contests to see who could concoct the most outrageously threatening scenario, and so persuade a Jewish family to sell and move out. One agent told the parents of a 12-year-old girl to worry about rapists; when families like that one fled, the realty and banking communities accused them of racism. This is the painstakingly researched story of one minority fleeing imagined terrors and another minority resenting the abandonment of its community by its founders, while the puppeteers who manipulated them both profited from the discord. This is a Philadelphia Mafia story created by one who lives and works in that setting. It deals with a schoolteacher who is unwillingly drawn into the underworld by his brother, who is enmeshed in its vortex. A dying Mafia don wishes to have his life recorded on tape, for reasons ranging from self-protection to a guilty need to rationalize his past.
Author Albert DiBartolomeo, after a slow warm-up in the early pages, picks up a momentum that makes it difficult to put the book down by the time one reaches the middle. There are plenty of surprises, with a refreshing absence of Mafia stereotypes. For example, in describing a scene at the morgue: ". . . he was not Frank but only flesh that happened to be in a shape similar to that of my brother." And the several themes merge into a satisfying ending.
ANGELO C. GILLI SR.