A non-mummy, a wolf, Elizabeth I

Mystery and Thrillers

February 02, 2003|By Judith M. Redding | By Judith M. Redding,Special to the Sun

Any mystery fan who has hoped to see an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Special Victims Unit set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art will thrill to Linda Fairstein's latest chiller, The Bone Vault (Scribner, 400 pages, $25), which may be her best yet. Alexandra Cooper, a prosecutor for the Sex Crimes Unit of the District Attorney's Office in Manhattan, finds herself embroiled in a murder case when a young woman's remarkably preserved body is found in an ancient sarcophagus where a linen-wrapped Egyptian mummy should be.

Fairstein, herself the former head of the aforementioned Sex Crimes Unit, brings major props to her story, deftly weaving the disparate strands of museum curating, homicide investigation, news leaks and the Catholic Church's theory of the incorruptibility of saints into a dark and compelling tapestry of human want. Swift-paced, full of more twists and turns than a mummy wrap, The Bone Vault is Fairstein's fifth fabulous foray with Alexandra Cooper, and must reading for lovers of both art and police procedurals. It should also put quite an intriguing spin on one's next museum outing.

Those who have read Robert Wilson's previous books, A Small Death in Lisbon or The Company of Strangers, know he has cornered the market on the creepy interior machinations of the psyche and how those cogs can turn one to murder and worse. The Blind Man of Seville (Harcourt, 448 pages, $25.) is yet another notch in Wilson's keep-the-reader-awake bedpost.

Raul Jimenez has literally had his face bashed in when Detective Inspector Javier Falcon views his body, upon which Jimenez's eyelids have been floated like flower petals. The gruesome scene drives Falcon to explore the source of such a grisly mutilation and, once driven, Falcon is led, like all good noirish detectives, down the road of self-exploration. After finding an intriguing photograph at the murder scene, Falcon is led to examine the journals of his late father, a famous artist.

Falcon's self-examination ends in yet more surprising revelations as more victims are discovered and Falcon himself becomes a target for the killer. Hauntingly beautiful prose propels the reader through the stark landscape of a Seville riven by serial murder. Like P.D. James, Wilson plumbs a myriad of social depths as he explores how and why we murder.

In Daniel Hecht's City of Masks (Bloomsbury, 400 pages, $24.95), parapsychologist Cree Black lands herself a job with the noted New Orleans Beauforte family. When Beauforte scion Lila and her husband move back into the family's Garden District mansion, Lila quickly discovers that the murder of the previous tenant has stirred up a rabble of visitations from her family's less-than-tidy past

Manifestations include a wolf who calls Lila's name, a desk whose sculpted feet come alive and a mysterious man with polished brown shoes and a boar's head. While Black works at identifying the spirits of Beauforte House, she also finds herself haunted by the psychic residue of her late husband's death.

Hecht writes well from a female point of view, and has clearly done his research into parapsychological phenomena: fans of early X-Files episodes will find this compelling stuff. Hecht also explores what constitutes a ghost: Black must convince Lila's family and her psychiatrist that Lila isn't losing her grip on reality, but that reality has more than one form.

Sometimes you want just one thing, and all Eddie wants to do is drive cars. So first he enters the criminal justice system as a juvenile joyrider, but soon finds himself as the title character in Andrew Vachss' The Getaway Man (Vintage, 192 pages, $11).

The Getaway Man covers familiar Vachss territory: a young man driven into a life of crime, an indictment of the ruling class for failing in its social responsibilities. The themes may be similar, but Eddie's narrative is as fresh as ever, with his clear-eyed look at how he went from joyrider to career thief, without ever really becoming morally corrupt. It is Eddie's strong sense of loyalty that gets him so many jobs as a getaway driver.

Now Eddie works for J.C. planning a big heist, with enough money for all involved to retire on. But Vonda, J.C.'s girlfriend, talks Eddie into a different scheme, one in which J.C. makes no getaway. Is Eddie smart enough to know whose side he should be on? Vachss' spare prose makes for a slim volume, but The Getaway Man has punch: a thin but very rich slice of how the criminal mind works.

What Would Elizabeth I Do? has been the query driving Karen Harper's previous four mysteries, as it does her latest, The Thorne Maze (St. Martin's Minotaur, 288 pages, $23.95).

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