Sweden, England, Venice, Brazil

Books of crime

April 04, 2004|By Dick Adler | Dick Adler,Chicago Tribune

If you miss the great Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, set in Stockholm, or find Henning Mankell's currently popular series about dour Swedish cop Kurt Wallander just too much of a downer, you should be as delighted as I am to welcome to American bookshelves Inspector Konrad Sejer -- a disarmingly thoughtful, refreshingly gentle and totally likable senior police investigator in Oslo.

Don't Look Back (Harcourt, 295 pages, $23) is the fifth -- though first to be published here -- in Karin Fossum's Sejer series, well received in Europe. Through Felicity David's expertly unobtrusive translation, we learn gradually that Sejer is a widower with one daughter and a half-Somalian grandson, Matteus, on whom he dotes. (He even enjoys taking the child to Legoland.) There's also a large dog named Kollberg, who is cut some slack by Sejer's condo association because they like the idea of a detective inspector living there.

But Sejer's bland exterior hides a fierce intelligence and the sharp instincts of a natural-born cop. Called in to investigate the disappearance of a child in a mountain village, Sejer deftly alternates respect for the family with a toughness toward possible perps that's frightening because of its rarity. That case is solved quickly: The child went to look at some rabbits at the home of a harmless man with Down syndrome. But when they both report somewhat belatedly that they saw the naked body of a woman at the edge of a nearby lake, Sejer and his ambitious, able young assistant Skarre return to the town, where a dark mystery of loss and repression begins to take shape.

Writing viable, interesting thrillers with noted artists as characters is never easy: The most successful practitioners (Iain Pears, Jonathan Gash, John Malcolm, Nicholas Kilmer, among others) have to walk a careful line between the fame and value of the art objects and the actual physical process of making them. In In the Kingdom of Mists (Berkley Prime Crime, 355 pages, $23.95), Jane Jakeman does this so well as she describes Claude Monet painting his famous series of pictures of a mist-shrouded London in 1900 that you might not notice what else there is in her engrossing book: a richly detailed story involving several major characters; easily swallowed history lessons about the Boer War and how disruptive it was to Anglo-French relations (shades of the Iraq conflict); even a logical resolution of one of my least favorite crime staples -- the identity of Jack the Ripper.

Jakeman's overworked and socially stigmatized police officer, Inspector Will Garrety, might make some readers think about Anne Perry's William Monk, and her idea of a private floor at the Savoy Hotel where mutilated veterans of the Boer War are hidden from public view could be a version of devices used in various World War I mysteries, most memorably and recently Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs.

In Interrupted Aria, by Beverle Graves Myers (Poisoned Pen, 296 pages, $24.95), on a chilly day in 1731, two young men arrive in the Italian city of Venice -- as besieged then by nature and human frailties as the present-day version so well-chronicled by such mystery writers as Edward Sklepowich and Donna Leon. Both of the men are castrati -- singers who paid the terrible price of sexual mutilation in order to maintain their perfect child soprano voices. One of them, Tito Amato, returning to his native city after many years in Naples at the famed Conservatorio San Remo, where he perfected his art, is about to become a star. The other, his best friend, Felice Ravello, is a sadder figure: Despite the operation, his voice has cracked and thickened, and he must develop other musical skills to survive.

"Castrati are famous for having the small, delicately formed larynx of a woman and the prodigious lung capacity of a man," says Tito, who is proud of his art but resentful at the price he has paid for it. "I had once witnessed a virtuoso performance by the great Farnelli in Naples. During his arias, all eyes were glued to his face and gestures. ... Some of the women, and even a few of the men, seemed transported by sensation. ... They appeared nothing short of enraptured."

The best thing about Beverle Graves Myers' riveting first mystery, which involves the poisoning of a beautiful aging opera star and the charging of Ravello with the crime, is how quickly we slip into the world she has so expertly re-created, despite its distance and initial oddness.

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