A toe tag, secrets, graft, a blonde

Autumn Mysteries

September 30, 2001|By Jody Jaffe | Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

All stories, like all lives, are mysteries, writes Michael Malone. We listen to them, he says, to meet strangers and learn their plots. "We are private eyes searching for clues to our connections. Safe in fiction, we are testing our hearts."

This month's mysteries give our hearts an exhilarating workout beginning with Malone's latest, First Lady, (Sourcebooks, 430 pages, $24).

Malone's 1983 Uncivil Seasons is the best mystery I've ever read. It had everything: beautiful writing, complex characters who beckon you to their world, social commentary and a page-turning plot. His next book, Times Witness, was a few steps shy of being the second-best mystery I've ever read, largely because Malone switched narrators from the soulful, brooding homicide detective Justin Saville V to Saville's brash boss, Cuddy Mangum.

I'm happy to report that First Lady has everything that Uncivil Seasons had -- including the same narrator, who's like a deep, rich tea steeped in Southern roots. This is a terrific, rush-out-and-buy-right-away book.

When Mangum, chief of the Hillston, N.C., police, brags that no one is smart enough to get away with murder in his town, the mutilated body of a woman is found with a tag tied around her toe taunting him. The police have no clues; they can't even identify the victim. More bodies show up and soon Hillston has its very own Ted Bundy, dubbed "The Guess Who Killer."

It's no surprise that Malone invokes Mark Twain (he calls him and Poe the fathers of American detective fiction) in an opening letter to readers. Like Twain, Malone brilliantly captures a time, a place and a people -- the New South.

"We lost the South when we lost the past, and what we got in its place was junk food," says Malone's detective, Justin Saville.

The first part of Robert Wilson's The Company of Strangers (Harcourt, 280 pages, $25) begins in 1944, when Englishwoman Andrea Aspinalt and German Karl Voss meet and fall in love. As if World War II isn't a big enough obstacle, both work for their respective intelligence agencies. The backdrop is neutral Portugal, where information is bought, stolen and sold. Everyone deceives; everyone has secrets. The only thing real is Karl and Andrea.

The Company of Strangers is a remarkable mix of spy thriller and romance; a kind of Casablanca seen through the eyes of John Le Carre. The final two sections -- set in Cold War Berlin and in England during the fall of the Wall -- are gritty and chilling, and drive the story to its inevitable ending. But they are no match for the passion and despair Wilson finds in the streets of Lisbon. Everything that follows seems cool by comparison. You almost wish he'd stopped halfway through this big, sprawling and completely compelling book.

Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express (The Mysterious Press, 277 pages, $24.95) is the 14th in Stuart M. Kaminsky's mystery series featuring Chief Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov of the Moscow Police. It centers on three separate cases: a brutal kidnapping, a series of subway murders, and a shadowy political intrigue. The main connecting tissue of these crimes is the corruption and amorality of modern-day Russia -- a place where violent skinheads and powerful Mafiosi have as much legitimacy as officials of the state. The only calm in this storm is the one-legged Rostnikov, who directs his meager staff with honor and kindness and a canny self-preservation. In Rostnikov, Kaminsky has created a remarkable hero and he's surrounded him with people and settings that are lively and real.

It's a classic noir setup: a cool blonde hires a tough guy, quicker with his fists than his head, to help her find the goods, while keeping the bad guys off her back. But there's a twist to the famous formula in Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Nautical Chart (Harcourt, 480 pages, $26) -- the tough guy is an out-of-work sailor, the dame is a naval museum researcher, and her particular Maltese Falcon is a 300-year-old sunken ship. The sailor, Manuel Coy, is so infatuated and full of angst he's almost a parody, but his over-heated musings about the sea and about the blonde enigma, Tanger Soto, can be surprisingly evocative, and the search for the ship is both fascinating and increasingly thrilling.

Mystery tapas. A little bit of this and a little bit of that is what you get in The Best American Mystery Stories 2001, (Houghton Mifflin, 345 pages, $13). The editor of this year's collection, Lawrence Block, threw his net way beyond traditional mystery magazines, and his exciting and eclectic catch is all the better for it. Many of the genre's most famous names are noticeably absent, replaced by either well-known literary authors or emerging writers.

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