Radio, darkness, Missoula, wit

Mysteries And Thrillers

January 07, 2001|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

Holiday cheer and conviviality have come to a merciful close. Now it's just winter -- no tinsel, no lights, nothing but cold outside. This is a time to savor the sedentary delights of reading -- garden catalogs to nurture spring dreams, cookbooks to map out hearty winter cuisine and compelling fiction to make short work of a dreary evening or weekend.

Assume that avid gardeners and serious cooks can navigate their own passages. Skip ahead to the really fun stuff -- the winter crop of thrillers and mysteries.

Herewith, a half-dozen novels, with no bias except that they entertained.

"Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime" (Scribner, 480 pages, $26) twines the tale of a drifter and the big-band singer he loves with the events at fictionalized New Jersey radio station WHAR during World War II. This is the third novel from former Denver bookstore owner John Dunning, and it's spectacular.

The war years were good ones for radio, and Dunning captures the passion of the dedicated actors, musicians and writers who filled the airwaves with dramas, news and music shows. In this layered and carefully plotted story, Dunning soars over a substantial hurdle that has tripped many others: His informative period-piece novel doesn't lecture or heave in explanatory chunks that clog the narrative flow. Instead, the story and the setting are woven together to form a seamless whole -- and a book almost impossible to put down.

The biracial detective Louis Kincaid is back in a second novel by two sisters writing under the pseudonym P.J. Parrish. "Dead of Winter" (Pinnacle, 415 pages, $6.99) is set in Loon Lake, Mich., a town faintly reminiscent of television's "Twin Peaks."

Snow falls and so do sinister hints. Things loom but they're never what they seem -- especially not for a mostly black man in a mostly white town. Handicapped by his race and his unfamiliarity with Loon Lake, Kincaid nevertheless manages to work out who's killing his fellow police officers and why. Along the way he makes some discoveries about his own prejudices and burdens. "Dead of Winter" moves briskly, pulling this reader along for a light but invigorating ride.

If it's cold in Loon Lake, it's absolutely arctic in Missoula, Mont., the setting for Jenny Siler's second Meg Gardner novel. "Iced" (Henry Holt and Co., 246 pages, $24) is almost as cold and hard as winter itself, with a flinty female protagonist who repossesses cars for a living. Gardner evokes the hardened characters of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. How many women would drink beer called Moose Drool? Push away a tender and undemanding lover? Knowingly set in motion a chain of events that will end in someone's death?

In "Iced," Gardner does all three. Next to her, V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone look downright prissy. But hard and evil are two different things. Gardner's unshakable moral foundation gives her depth and likability as she untangles a knot of murder and mayhem with roots in a plane crash decades ago. It's a bleak, intricate story. And Meg Gardner's a keeper.

The prolific Anne Perry, who has devised two ingenious and lengthy detective series set in Victorian times, has written another book. Perry never disappoints, although some of her books are better than others. "The White Chapel Conspiracy" (Ballantine, 368 pages, $25) is one of the others.

London police officer Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte, and their diminutive maid, Gracie, each pull at separate threads of a puzzle until all three land at the center of a conspiracy that threatens to tear the fabric of polite London society past all mending.

It's a theme Perry has worked before, and her skill with dialogue and story make this as readable, though not as meaty, as her other efforts. Best part, though, is the ending -- which makes clear that Pitt will face these forces of darkness again another day. Even when she's not at her best, Perry is still better than nearly anyone else. So it's nice to know she's got at least one more book in the works.

Equally memorable, but considerably less clear, is "Some Day Tomorrow" (St. Martin's Minotaur, 204 pages, $22.95). Nicolas Freeling's work is always quirky and this first-person narrative is especially so. The narrator is a retired Dutch flower grower jailed in the murder of a teen-age girl, and the story must be parsed from little hints he lets fall, tiny glimpses of the truth behind his madness.

Hubertus van Bijl's smug tone and opinionated digressions about life, flowers, his wife and his native Holland are infuriating and compelling. Freeling has forged a remarkable narrative voice that lingers in the mind -- a 200-page monologue that holds this reader's interest well. But this delicate, highly stylish book finally disappoints because the story line is so oblique that it's impenetrable.

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