Success, violence, twin suicides

Mysteries for Spring

May 26, 2002|By Dail Willis | By Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

The heat and light of summer may be upon us, but it can't dissipate the noir chill that runs through some newly published thrillers. The five reviewed here were chosen for their ability to create a cold, dark cocoon whose shadow lingers past the last page.

Clare Francis probes the malice threaded through everyday lives in Betrayal (Soho Press, 372 pages, $25). Hugh Wellesley has all of the trappings of success -- the glassware business he inherited from his father, a London house and a country estate, a beautiful wife and a mistress. But that veneer of success is shattered when his mistress is murdered. A neatly ordered life unspools out of control as Wellesley becomes the chief suspect in the murder.

Francis has cleverly plotted this book, hiding the murderer's identity until almost the last page. Even more clever is her writing, which allows the reader to see the motives and feelings of others through the first-person narrative of Wellesley, who at times is (to put it kindly) a little slow to connect the dots. It's a neat balancing act: We know more than Wellesley but we still don't know who did it or why until the end. Light on gore and long on intellect, this is the kind of mystery-thriller that the British perfected and still do better than any one else.

Grit and gallows humor are artfully blended by Glaswegian Denise Mina in Resolution (Carroll & Graf, 368 pages, $25). Like the novels of her fellow countryman and mystery novelist Ian Rankin, Mina depicts a Scotland so hard that merely living there can cut you like a shard of glass.

Maureen O'Donnell has survived incest, domestic violence and a stay in a mental hospital. Now she is fighting to shield her sister's unborn child from the sexual abuse she herself experienced -- a battle made harder by her family's refusal to believe her father molested her.

The psychiatrist who treated her later killed her boyfriend and his murder trial is about to start. Her brother is a former drug dealer, her mother is an alcoholic and O'Donnell has so many demons the night isn't long enough to hold them all; they're starting to spill over into her waking hours.

Mina takes O'Donnell too far over the top now and then, and it doesn't always work. But it mostly does, and even some of the credibility stretchers are amusing enough to forgive, most notably a scene where two friends concerned about O'Donnell's drinking try an informal intervention during "the good Friday night TV shows." By mutual unspoken agreement, the topic of alcoholism is only discussed during commercials. Sly and wry, this book rises above its minor flaws.

San Francisco sleuth Sharon McCone is back in Dead Midnight (Warner Books, 304 pages, $23.95) by Marcia Muller. McCone's personal life and her professional life converge with two unrelated suicides: Her brother kills himself, and she is asked to investigate the case of Roger Nagasawa, a dot-com worker whose parents believe was driven to take his own life because of overwork. Muller sets her novel in the frantic world of the young Web site workers who staff the Internet magazine InSite.

As she has in her previous novels, Muller does a nice job of making San Francisco a central character in the story and plaits McCone's own emotional journey toward accepting her brother's suicide with her determination to learn what led Nagasawa to jump from the Bay Bridge. E-mails and emotion rise like a bay tide as the story progresses, and Muller's straightforward prose keeps the reader eager to untangle the cyberknots.

Chicago's U.S. District Judge James Zagel is the author of Money to Burn (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 384 pages, $24.95). This legal thriller has the authority and detail one would expect from a jurist-turned-novelist, and Zagel's expertise and explanatory writing style work well here. Judge Paul Eamon Devine, like his creator, a federal judge in Chicago, has decided to rob the Federal Reserve. Using his judicial knowledge and a network of friends from his childhood, Devine designs a plan and carries it out. The plan is announced early on, but Zagel keeps the suspense high with plot twists and complications that hold a reader's interest, particularly the contrast between Devine's days in the courtrooms and his nights plotting crime.

Landing somewhere between the layered art of Scott Turow and the facile froth of John Grisham, Money to Burn has a little of both: It's fun to read but also offers a serious study of character, crime and consequences. Zagel neither lectures the reader nor asks too much suspension of disbelief, and this book reaches its conclusion layer by layer in the same way a lawyer makes a strong legal case.

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