A schlemiel, nutsos, Cold War, nunnery

Mysteries and thrillers

January 05, 2003|By Jody Jaffe | By Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

Jason Starr's Tough Luck (Vintage, 256 pages, $12) is for people who slow down to catch a peek at highway pileups. It's the kind of book you read with a wince, but you read it straight through because you can't put it down. Starr, a terrifically taut writer, crafts a sympathetic character and puts him on the rack. Then he cranks the tension so tight you want to reach into the pages and rescue the poor schlemiel.

Mickey Prada, 18, is the schlemiel in question. He's a good kid, working at a Flatbush Avenue fish store to save money for college. Trouble is, his boss is the Brooklyn reincarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge; his mother's dead; and he's taking care of his father, who has Alzheimer's and is even nastier than the fishmonger. Even worse, a Tony-Soprano-type customer keeps forcing him to place bets with Prada's bookie, the only sympathetic(ish) character in the book.

Soon Prada's used up his college savings to pay off the mobster's losses, his father's trying to plunge a knife into his heart, his best friend's dead, and he's an accomplice in a botched robbery. Add to the mix a girl who finally takes a liking to the unattractive, but earnest Prada. All you have to do is remember the title of the book to figure out the outcome of that romance -- as well as Prada's pitiable, poor life. Tough luck, kid.

The opening of Michael Kimball's Green Girls (William Morrow, 384 pages, $24.95), is one of the best I've read all year. At 21 lines, this exercise in economy captures in chillingly clinical detail a man's 4.03-second, 250-foot fall from a bridge. The fact that the man who's falling is the book's hero makes it all the more compelling.

Jacob Winter, a somewhat celebrated writer, flips out when he finds his wife having a romantic dinner with her boss, who's his former psychiatrist. He turns the shrink to mincemeat and winds up in jail only to be bailed out by a college classmate he hardly remembers. He gets entwined with the classmate's gorgeous lover who's so obviously nutso she'd be played by Glenn Close in the movie version, if Glenn Close were a 25-year-old South American beauty.

The former classmate lures them all to the aforementioned bridge -- which itself is a central character -- and jumps, disappearing into the night, but not from the book. Soon Winter's about to lose custody of his son, his nutso girlfriend's shaman husband is killing people with darts dipped in poison frog venom and, in a touch of meta-fiction, our hero is writing a book about a man on a bridge.

Though the plot occasionally veers out of control and the villain all but carries a neon sign that flashes "bad guy," Green Girls is an intriguing read in which the author stretches the literary boundaries beyond the thriller norm.

Tangled webs of deceit are standard in mysteries, but British author John Lawton takes the idea to nearly Shakespearean heights in Old Flames (Atlantic Monthly Press, 512 pages, $24). The setting is 1950s England; the hero is Chief Inspector Freddie Troy of Scotland Yard; the problem is a Royal Navy diver who's ended up dead under the hull of a visiting Soviet ship.

Troy, the son of emigres, speaks perfect Russian and is called in to help solve the crime. While he's doing it, more bodies show up and he's bedeviled by a whole cadre of Cold War characters, including historic ones such as Khrushchev and Eisenhower. By the time he untangles everything, you'll probably have lost track of the various murderers and moles.

The book's pace is leisurely and digressions are frequent. Lawton tells you far more about Troy's past loves and family history than is necessary. Still, it's a rich mixture of political intrigue and old-fashioned mayhem and the characters -- prominently the world-weary, cynical Troy and his dangerous old flame and ex-spy Larissa Tosca -- are vividly drawn.

From Father Brown to Brother Cadfael, men and women of the cloth have been uncovering fictional crime for many years. So Sister Agatha, the sleuthing nun of Bad Faith (St. Martin's Minotaur, 304 pages, $23.95) isn't such a contrivance. It's only when Agatha roars off on a Harley, with a big German shepherd in the sidecar, that mystery writers Aimee and David Thurlo overstep the bounds. Still, Agatha is a good character. She's spunky, smart, relatively young as religious sleuths go (only in her 40s) and, before she took her vows, was an investigative reporter. Agatha lives in a monastery outside Albuquerque. When the chaplain there is murdered her spunkiness is put to the test. With the help of local cop, Tom Green (her high school beau), she must solve the case quickly or the monastery might have to close.

Nothing but divine intervention can save the clunky writing, but the Thurlos have done two things well: create a solid plot and incorporate realistic details of the monastic life. Sister Agatha's strong convictions and religiosity may make you a believer in Bad Faith.

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