Terror, mystery, thrills, politics

Novels Of July

July 09, 2000|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Since the 1970s, Peter Straub has been writing literate tales of horror and mystery. His latest book "Magic Terror: Seven Tales" (Random House, 335 pages, $24.95) is a superb collection and will surely delight the many fans of his best-selling novels "Ghost Story" and "Koko." He has often been called the Edgar Allan Poe of our time, and this new work contains at least two stories that may well become modern classics of supernatural terror.

"Ashputtle" is Straub's wickedly amusing revision of the Cinderella tale, with a frightening heroine who is a deranged teacher in an elementary school. She likes to think of herself in private as a queen, but the children mock her behind her back as Mrs. Fat Asch, and she seethes with quiet fury over old wounds suffered in her own dark childhood.

The jewel of Straub's collection is the long story "Mr. Club and Mr. Cuff," which features a strange pair of private detectives who torment a Wall Street mogul. In their spooky way, the detectives make a mockery of the businessman's faith in financial grandeur and destroy his pride after he makes the mistake of trusting them.

*

Michael Faber's "Under the Skin" (Harcourt, 309 pages $23) is a fascinating psychological thriller by an Australian writer living in Scotland. It is the story of a mysteriously stunted and withdrawn young woman who spends her days desperately searching for companionship on the lonely roads of the Scottish Highlands. But her habit of giving rides to hitchhikers leads her into a series of increasingly bizarre encounters that threaten to overwhelm her fragile state of mind. Much of the novel hovers between the real and the fantastic, yet Faber makes all of it convincing and compelling by employing a narrative voice that is consistently cool and confident.

*

Van Reid's "Daniel Plainway, Or the Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League" (Viking, 448 pages, $24.95) is a blatantly old-fashioned mystery written in the engaging style of a late Victorian popular novel. With quaint chapter headings ("The Man Who Would Not Come Ashore") and rambling digressions, the book follows the adventures of an eccentric social club in 19th-century Maine. The affable members usually spend their time in harmless fellowship, dining out once a week and entertaining each other with convoluted stories. But when a real adventure beckons, they are always quick to join the fun.

In this third book featuring the Moosepath League, Van Reid presents a gentle challenge for the intrepid club. Its leader has come into the possession of a portrait that turns out to have been stolen. With the help of a kindly lawyer who knows the original owner of the portrait, the club tries to get to the bottom of the theft. But investigating the crime is really only an excuse for everyone to have a grand old time meeting new people and seeing new places in a picaresque world that resembles that of Dickens' early novels. It's all good fun and a pleasant escape for a long July weekend at the beach.

*

But this month's best choice for escapist reading is John Altman's espionage adventure "A Gathering of Spies" (Putnam, 320 pages, $24.95). Set in England and America during the middle of the Second World War, the book covers familiar ground but it also offers a fresh perspective on the old game between Nazi spies and Allied agents. The twist here is the intriguing duel of wits that develops between a beautiful German spy working in America and a British professor whose wife is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.

When the spy, Katarina Heinrich, discovers valuable information about America's atomic bomb, she makes ruthless efforts to convey her secrets to Berlin. But, in the end, she discovers that all her work will be in vain unless she has the cooperation of Professor Harris Winterbotham, whose desperate desire to help his imprisoned wife makes him vulnerable to blackmail. With a good cinematic eye, Altman gives the reader a wild, and not always predictable, thriller that raises interesting questions about the nature of betrayal and the demands of war.

*

For a more demanding read, Akhil Sharma's "An Obedient Father" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pages, $23) is an excellent choice that is nevertheless economical and witty. A first novel by an Indian writer living in New York, this book is set in Delhi on the eve of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The complicated political background is not easy to digest, but at the heart of the book is a powerful story of a family at odds with itself in a country that is struggling to emerge from its feudal past.

The head of the family is a small-time political boss whose principal occupation is school inspector, but whose real livelihood comes from collecting bribes for the Congress Party. A local election brings out both the comic and the tragic sides of this corrupt party hack, and his relations with his family suffer as the political tensions of the moment aggravate long-standing domestic troubles.

As an antidote to more romantic and mystical portraits of India, "An Obedient Father" is first rate. With welcome flashes of humor and compassion, it presents the dark underside of modern life in a country whose customs remain an enigma to most of the world.

Michael Shelden is the author of biographies of George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

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