Fascists, psychopaths, Venice, magic

Mysteries and Thrillers

March 07, 2004|By Judith M. Redding | Judith M. Redding,Special to the Sun

In Rebecca Pawel's strongly atmospheric Law of Return (Soho Press, 274 pages, $24), Guardia Civil Carlos Tejada finds himself marking time in Franco's Spain until an important parolee goes missing, presumed murdered. Tejada, investigating the missing Manuel Arroyo Diaz and his wealthy and influential in-laws, may ruin the plans of another parolee, Guillermo Fernandez, to smuggle a colleague and Jewish German classics scholar across the French border and onto a ship to Mexico.

Because Tejada had met Fernandez's daughter Elena while at his previous posting in Madrid, he feels duty-bound to help her family. The tensions build to a dramatic climax in Pawel's historic mystery, which evokes the claustrophobic feel of a university town on the eve of World War II and the Nazi approach. Law of Return offers a study of legal, moral and familial duties. Fans of Spanish mystery master Arturo Perez-Reverte will enjoy this volume for its careful plotting, whereas English readers will appreciate Pawel's measured style.

In Jack Kerley's The Hundredth Man (Dutton, 310 pages, $23.95), Carson Ryder has just spent a year as a Mobile, Ala., police detective when he and partner Harry Nautilus are called in on a homicide that activates their Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team, a police department PR ploy.

Ryder, a former psych grad student with an uncanny ability to get inside the minds of serial killers, soon finds himself in over his head and must turn to his brother, a convicted psychopath, for help with the investigation. Kerley's first novel is explosively good, a nuanced look at the dark underbelly of contemporary society that reads like a cross between Thomas Harris and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

When senior investigator Sun Piao arrives at the edge of Shanghai's Huangpu River, he finds eight bodies, chained together, mutilated. But when Shanghai's top coroner refuses to house the bodies in the morgue, let alone investigate the case, Piao knows that the corpses are political poison. In Dragon's Eye (Overlook, 460 pages, $24.95), Andy Oakes follows Piao as he discovers the identities of the eight, who include two Westerners, one the son of an important American diplomat.

In a delectable twist, the diplomat is a woman, Barbara Hayes, intent on finding out who murdered her archaeologist son and harvested his organs for transplant. Piao must play a delicate cat-and-mouse game with the politicos who hold the secrets to the case, and finds both his job and his life at risk. Just as Piao appears to be sunk and the case dead, new players enter the field.

While Londoner Oakes lacks a practiced ear for American dialogue, he makes up for it with his dazzling descriptions of Shanghai and its denizens. Must reading for Sinophiles and those wary of signing organ donation cards, this first novel successfully straddles the police-procedural and political-thriller genres.

Donna Leon knows Venice, the darkly intriguing centerpiece of her Guido Brunetti detective series. Leon's latest foray starring her complex detective, Doctored Evidence (Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pages, $22), finds Brunetti once again battling corruption and incompetence in the upper levels of the police department.

A Romanian housekeeper appears the likely suspect in the murder of the housekeeper's employer. But what seems an open-and-shut case to Brunetti's superiors is anything but. The housekeeper has an alibi -- perhaps; and a trail of evidence that only Brunetti is willing and able to follow leads to a compelling and intricate series of events as convoluted and intricate as the canals of Venice itself. Brunetti once again charms his devotees, and fans of Leon will not be disappointed as she crafts yet another expert mystery.

Trust -- or the lack thereof -- is the motivating force behind every action in Ridley Pearson's fast-paced, complicated and multifaceted new novel, The Body of David Hayes (Hyperion, 352 pages, $23.95). Lou Boldt, Pearson's detective extraordinaire, and his wife, Liz, a banker, have a past secret -- her infidelity with a former colleague, David Hayes. Hayes, charged with embezzling an untraceable $17 million, was investigated by Boldt's best friend, Danny Foreman.

Now out of prison, Hayes' return threatens the Boldts' barely restabilized marriage as the case is reopened, Lou is involved, and Liz is torn between her work, her former lover and her marriage. INS, FBI and police stake their individual territories to the detriment of each other and the Boldts. Strong, inventive and a decided cut above standard police procedurals, with well-drawn, intense characters and great plotting, Pearson's latest is a must.

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