The dead, history, old lies, geology

Mysteries & Thrillers

March 23, 2003|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, now part of our emotional landscape, have influenced the new mysteries reviewed below. In some, it's a direct link; in others, it's merely an acknowledgement of the real world. Either way, there's extra resonance to the clash between good and evil.

Harry Bosch is back. Like his creator, he never disappoints. In Lost Light (Little, Brown, 368 pages, $25.95), Michael Connelly ventures into new territory by having the taciturn Bosch narrate the story. It takes nerve and skill to tinker with a formula as successful as the Bosch series. Happily, Connelly has plenty of both.

Letting Bosch speak directly to the reader gives Connelly the room to write a novel with more depth and heart, and he takes full advantage of it. Bosch is now a private investigator in Los Angeles (series followers will recall he left the LAPD at the end of the last Bosch book), and in Lost Light he revisits an unsolved case from his police career. "My job in this world, badge or no badge, was to stand for the dead," Bosch says.

Lost Light has all of the ingenious plotting and skillful writing that are Connelly's hallmarks. He even throws in a surprise at the end that promises to develop into another installment. Let it come soon.

Barbara Seranella opens Unpaid Dues (Scribner, 304 pages, $25) with a quote from Sara Jane Olson, the Midwestern doctor's wife who turned out to be 1970s revolutionary Kathleen Soliah: "I'd rather not go down in history at all. I'm going down because of history." It's an apt start.

Unpaid Dues features Miranda "Munch" Mancini, who is burdened with considerably more history than most of us. A recovering addict, a single mother, a working auto mechanic and a former police informant whose boyfriend is a cop, Mancini is tough and likable. When the out-of-wedlock, biracial child of a friend from her street days turns up, Mancini takes him in. That generous impulse connects her seamy past to present murders. Seranella has created a taut, interesting story about debts old and new.

The past also takes center stage in Back Story (Penguin Putnam 304 pages, $24.95) by Robert B. Parker. This is the 30th Spenser novel, and it's as reliably entertaining as its predecessors. Paul Giacomin, Spenser's quasi-son, reappears with a friend whose mother's murder has never been solved. Spenser agrees to investigate the shooting, which took place during a 1974 bank robbery organized by 1960s revolutionaries.

Old lies and coverups have grown into a knot that Spenser, his pal Hawk and his love interest Susan untangle, and the answers are pleasurably surprising. A note for fans of the late Pearl the Wonder Dog: Her replacement, also named Pearl, debuts in this book, digging up Susan's yard while her owners dig up the truth. Parker's roster of witty irregulars who root out injustice is back to full strength.

Invisible, deadly toxins are the topic of Dark Alchemy (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $24) by Sarah Lovett. The latest in the Sylvia Strange series finds the New Mexico-based forensic psychologist working with the FBI to stop a serial poisoner using top-secret toxins. E-mail and evil are woven together here to make a creepy, satisfying mix.

Strange is much like another fictional scientist, Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta -- brilliant, difficult, not always nice but always readable. Dark Alchemy probably won't send you scurrying for the duct tape if you haven't bought some already. But it will make you wonder about those secret federal facilities tucked away in Nevada and New Mexico.

The novels of Nicci French explore the dark terrain of the mind, and Land of the Living (Warner Books, 336 pages, $23.95) hews to what has become a successful cross-genre mix of psychological suspense and mystery. The first 50 pages are nightmarish, a first-person account of being held prisoner in the dark by a stranger. The rest of the book is a narrative by Abbie Devereaux, the prisoner, who escapes with her life but loses her memory of how she came to be held captive.

Dismissed by police and denigrated by psychologists, Devereaux has to trace her own steps backward to learn what happened to her and why. It's a great formula for a page-turner, with one flaw: The story's breadth is limited by the first-person-in-the-dark structure, because the reader is blinkered along with the narrator. As a result, the reason for the kidnapping is never satisfactorily explained. But it's a good read nonetheless.

Life changes come to the Japanese-American sleuth Rei Shimura in The Samurai's Daughter (HarperCollins, 304 pages, $24.95). She's still got her yen for things Japanese, her Scottish lawyer boyfriend and too much shrillness to be fully engaging. But this sixth book in the series, while not entirely successful, offers hope for the future with hints from the Baltimore-based author Sujata Massey, formerly a writer for The Evening Sun, that Shimura might finally be growing up.

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