Murders in big cities

violence in small towns

Crime Fiction

September 26, 2004|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

Absent Friends

by S.J. Rozan. Delacorte. 384 pages. $24.95.

When a popular series writer moves into standalone territory, there are high expectations and much trepidation about the end result. Can the author shake off the familiar in favor of greater risk and artistic reward? For S.J. Rozan, the answer moves way beyond a simple yes. Absent Friends isn't just bigger and broader in scope than her Lydia Chin and Bill Smith novels; it's a meditation on love, loss and enduring friendships, as filtered through the shattering aftermath of 9 / 11.

Wisely, Rozan focuses on the individual and the personal, using firefighter James McCaf-fery's death at the World Trade Center as a catalyst to explore the lives of his childhood friends, a mysterious murder in their Staten Island town 20 years earlier, and how an emotionally wounded New York Tribune reporter connects McCaffrey's past and his friends' present to the so-called suicide of her colleague and lover.

Rozan has always been a talented storyteller, but time shifts and tone changes in the narrative allow greater improvement and experimentation. Absent Friends is a love song to a city stubbornly insisting on moving forward, and is without question one of the year's standout novels.

The Pearl Diver

by Sujata Massey. HarperCollins. 352 pages. $23.95.

In the seventh entry of this Asian-centric series, Miss Shimura Goes to Washington -- thanks to an unsavory incident in her beloved Japan that left immigration folks unimpressed.

With her options diminished, Rei follows her Scottish fiance, Hugh, to his D.C. digs, making vague wedding plans and vaguer career choices.

Fortune seems to turn in her favor when Rei is hired as the interior designer of Bento, an upscale Japanese fusion restaurant. But the mysterious kidnapping of her high-powered cousin at the restaurant's opening, plus a possible connection to the decades-old disappearance of a young Japanese war bride, soon derails such hopes -- never mind that a few misunderstandings too many threaten to scuttle Rei's relationship with Hugh.

Baltimore-based Massey, a one-time Evening Sun reporter, crafts a more intricate mystery here than in previous novels, but allows one of the genre's most intriguing heroines to further grow and change, and dots the narrative with mouth-watering descriptions of various Japanese dishes. The Pearl Diver is a feast of delights, sure to make readers impatient for Rei Shimura's next adventure.

Double Homicide

by Faye Kellerman and Jonathan Kellerman. Warner Books. 304 pages, $23.95.

What if Author X and Author Y collaborated on a book? It's a popular question in mystery circles, usually rebuffed by contractual and time issues. But the husband-and-wife best-selling team (Alex Delaware stars in his books, Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus in hers) have cooked up a new series binding together two novellas set in different cities with different protagonists.

Unfortunately, Double Homicide is all gimmick and little substance, the content suffering under the weight of logistics. In "Still Life," Santa Fe detectives Steve Katz and Darrell Two Moons look into the murder of a wealthy art gallery owner, while the Boston-set "In the Land of Giants" revolves around the fatal shooting of a high-school track star that proves more complicated than Detectives Michael McCain and Doris Breton expected.

The novella format doesn't allow for much character development, the plots are serviceable at best, and name-dropping real-life forensic pathologists is a poor substitute for veri-similitude. By working together, the Kellermans have undermined their individual voices. Give Double Homicide a pass unless you're a diehard fan of either author or more interested in the curiosity of a husband and wife working together on a series.

Fire Point

by John Smolens. Shaye Areheart Books. 272 pages. $22.

The story structure of Smolens' fifth novel (following the critically acclaimed Cold) is all too familiar: a young woman living in a small town falls in love with an older, semi-mysterious stranger. They move in together, but then her ex-boyfriend returns home after a yearlong stint in the Army and makes their life a living hell until a shockingly violent act occurs.

In the hands of others, this story line would feel trite and overused, but not in Smolens' hands. Hannah LeClaire, new love Martin Reed and old flame Sean Colby are all too human: victims of past mistakes, beholden to choices they had no power to make, and amazingly, redeemed in surprising and unexpected ways.

Of note is Sean, long in the shadow of his police officer father, and how each of his decisions, whether noble or horrifying, is rooted in a past he can't escape.

Fire Point doesn't break new ground, but Smolens' careful realization of his characters and the harsh Upper Michigan setting adds a welcome freshness that rises above the apparent plot contrivances.

The Midnight Band of Mercy

by Michael Blaine. Soho. 384 pages. $25.

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