Voice, violence, verisimilitude, vigor

Mysteries, thrillers

January 25, 2004|By Jody Jaffe | Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

Let me make a prediction: Ron Rash's One Foot in Eden (Picador, 214 pages, $13) will be one of the best mysteries I read this year. I know it's only January, but that's how good Rash's haunting tale of tragic consequence is.

"Bad luck followed his people like some mangy hound they couldn't run off," Rash says of Billy Holcombe, a dirt-poor tobacco farmer in Southern Appalachia. Rash's story is about what happens when that bad luck mixes with bad choices. He tells the story from five different points of view -- Holcombe, his wife, their son, the sheriff and the deputy -- nailing each voice with a pitch-perfect ear. Rash, a South Carolina poet and short story writer, accomplishes in just over 200 pages what many authors can't do in 400 pages -- he creates complex characters who possess near-holographic clarity.

Someone's murdered Holcombe's neighbor, Holland Winchester, a brutal bar-fighting hulk who carries around the ears of the men he killed in the Korean War. Winchester's mother knows who killed him. So does the sheriff and, after a few pages, so do you. But the mystery here is why and how, not who, and it's compelling enough to make you race through the book in one sitting.

If you do, however, you might skim over the beauty of Rash's lyrical language or miss his sly central clue and its metaphorical implications. Holcombe's story unfolds amid the impending doom of Carolina Power's plans to flood the Jocassee Valley where he and his family have lived for generations. To the Cherokee, it's known as the Valley of the Lost; Jocassee was a princess whose body was never found after she drowned herself. Enough said, or it will ruin the end. Just know that One Foot in Eden is not only Holcombe's tragedy, but also the tragedy of a place and way of life destroyed.

Like Ron Rash, Grace F. Edwards is a master of voice and place. Her latest novel, The Viaduct (Doubleday, 260 pages, $22.95), is a deeply atmospheric and emotionally wrenching thriller set in Harlem in the 1970s. Like Rash, she jumps in and out of each character and makes them all distinct, real and heartbreaking.

Vietnam vet Marin Taylor has a decent job and a lovely wife who's about to give birth to their first child. Then everything falls apart. He's laid off from work and robbed of his last paycheck by two brothers who mug him on a viaduct that rises 10 stories above Eighth Avenue. In the struggle, Taylor gets stabbed and throws one of the robbers over the railing.

The other one, a deliciously skanky and stupid bad guy, vows to avenge his brother's death. So he kidnaps Taylor's brand-new baby daughter from the hospital. That sends Taylor's wife, Margaret, into a downward spiral of sadness, leaving her mute and almost catatonic. Taylor searches for his baby with the help of his old war pal, the enigmatic Chance. The mystery is interesting enough to hold your attention, and Edwards' portrayal of Margaret's descent is elegantly poignant. But the best part of this book is the trip to Harlem that Edwards takes you on.

Authors like Rash and Edwards get the voice right and make it look easy. But read G.H. Ephron's Obsessed (St. Martin's Minotaur, 291 pages, $24.95), and it's clear how difficult that task is. G.H. Ephron is the writing team of Hallie Ephron (of the Ephron family writing dynasty) and Donald A. Davidoff, a forensic psychologist. She writes, he supplies the verisimilitude. Their sleuth is Peter Zak, a forensic neuropsychologist.

It's hard for a writer to cross the gender line and pull it off. Ephron doesn't. Zak is not a convincing male character. And there are other problems with this book, such as language. There are some incredible clunkers here: "Uneasiness seeped into my chest," and just two pages later, "a helpless fury was building in my chest."

Nevertheless, Obsessed is a fun, fast read that's full of intriguing information about how our brains work. Emily Ryan is a post-doc at the Pearce Psychiatric Institute where Zak works. She's being stalked (or is she?), and Zak steps in to help. The best part is watching Ryan work with a patient who wants to amputate his arm to make himself feel complete. Co-author Davidoff clearly knows his stuff, and it's fascinating.

Jenny Siller's Flashback (Henry Holt, 259 pages, $25) is a welcome addition to the Grit-Lit boys club. Siller can slice and dice and talk tough with the best of them. In her gripping first chapter alone, she massacres a group of nuns and doesn't ease the pace until the book ends. The target was meant to be Eve, not the nuns. She's been living at the French convent since she was found in a ditch with a bullet in her brain, rendering her amnesic.

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