Faith, memory, spunk, skepticism

Mysteries, Thrillers

April 29, 2001|By Jody Jaffe | Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

There's a lot of loss going on in this spring's mysteries and thrillers. A priest loses his faith, a father loses his son, a son loses his father, a mother loses her daughter and a man loses his past. Loss is a good thing for writers. It ups the ante, it keeps the readers reading. If something's lost, you wonder how -- and if -- it will be found.

If is the question in Simon Mawer's "The Gospel of Judas" (Little Brown, 330 pages, $24.95). If faith is lost, can it be found?

Mawer knows how to marry the power and beauty of words. He pieces together sentences so delicate and revelatory, I found myself rereading passages to savor them. He's equally skilled at plot, deftly layering intricate pieces of story back and forth across time and locale. The novel as millefiore.

While other thriller writers take on spies, serial killers and bad cops, this author wrestles with faith, redemption and the authenticity of Christianity.

Leo Newman is a priest about to fall. In the midst of his struggle with fidelity to God, he's asked to decipher a newly discovered ancient scroll. The writer of the scroll identifies himself as Judas and his account of Jesus' crucifixion is vastly different from that of the New Testament. If Father Newman validates the scroll, he invalidates not only his life, but Christianity. He would become Judas. "He knew all the pain of betrayal," writes Mawer, "how compelling it was, how necessary. Betrayal stemmed from belief, that was its compulsion."

Mawer intertwines Newman's struggles with the lives of the three significant -- and significantly damaged -- women in the priest's life: his mother, his first lover and his current lover. The twists in their lives are unexpected and troubling. But don't expect a neat ending with easy resolutions. This is a book about a man who struggles with faith. Mawer leaves the reader as he leaves Father Newman, questioning.

However, if you are looking for a novel with clear-cut closure, where the bad guys are as demented as they are powerful and the good guys are brave of heart, John Case's "The Syndrome," (Ballantine, 455 pages, $25.95) is your ticket. This is a good old-fashioned page-turner, where the writers (Case is a pseudonym for the husband-wife writing team of Jim and Carolyn Hougan) do no writing gymnastics beyond their reach. It's clear, engaging story-telling; the kind that makes you race through the book.

Jeff Duran is an agoraphobic psychologist with memory issues and Adrienne Cope is a compulsive list-writing lawyer with attachment issues. Cope blames Duran for her sister's suicide. She's certain Duran, her sister's therapist, "recovered" false memories of Satanic sacrifice that drove her sister crazy. Soon nothing is certain, most especially who Jeff Duran is.

At issue is the malleable nature of memory. Lots of research has obviously gone into this book and the authors weave in fascinating details. To reveal anything else would give away the fun. Suffice it to say, it's all about mind control, with (hopefully) imagined cyber, techno and bio techniques so powerful they can not only erase lives, but create new, horrifying ones. "The Syndrome" is "The Manchurian Candidate" on steroids.

Michelle Spring knows her way around a sentence. So when you start with good writing and add what should be a can't-miss plot -- the disappearance of a child -- chances are good you've got a winner on your hands.

Good, but not guaranteed. The first three quarters of "In the Midnight Hour" (Ballantine, 290 pages, $23) are taut and compelling. But it falls apart in the end with characters that come out of the blue to solve the mystery. Other than killing animals, a mystery writer can commit no greater crime.

The book opens with a moody description of an English beach where famous explorer Jack Cable has taken his 4-year-old son, Timmy. The boy disappears and 12 years later, Cable and his wife, Olivia, commission private investigator Laura Principal to find out if a street musician could be the missing boy. So far, so good. Even better, Spring understands the importance of her theme -- the exquisite vulnerability of parenthood -- and mines it well. Just as she cranks the plot tight, it spins out of control. Too bad. This book had everything going for it but a plausible ending.

I really wanted to like this book. If for nothing else but for solidarity with my sisters. And I did, for the first 150 or so pages. However, even the spirited efforts of its suffragette sleuth, Nell Bray, couldn't rescue "The Perfect Daughter" (St Martin's Minotuar, 308 pages, $23.95) from its unbelievable outcome.

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