Redemption in 'City'

Russian sleuth in lively 'Gambit'

Crime Fiction

March 27, 2005|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

Drama City

By George Pelecanos. Little, Brown. 290 pages. $24.95.

There are two ways to follow up a book as marvelously complex as Pelecanos' previous novel, Hard Revolution: go bigger, or narrow the scope. Wisely, he chooses the latter for Drama City, telling smaller stories with fewer characters and exploring themes of loyalty, redemption and second chances. Lorenzo Brown is out of jail after an eight-year stint on a drug charge, finding sanctuary and hard work as an animal control officer. Rachel Lopez is his parole officer, a woman so skilled at the art of compartmentalization that she completely divorces the no-nonsense approach she takes for her work from the near-destructive tendencies of her social life. Pelecanos spends the bulk of the book fleshing out both characters into believable human beings faced with challenges of their past and of their own making, and showing how the specter of contemporary urban D.C. looms ever large. But compelling as the character studies are, Drama City kicks into another gear after a shocking act forces Lorenzo on a path of revenge, where he must make difficult choices between his old and new life. Drama City doesn't reinvent or redefine, but demonstrates yet again how fine a writer Pelecanos has become.

Turkish Gambit

By Boris Akunin. Random House. 224 pages. $23.95.

Boris Akunin is an international phenomenon; published in more than 30 countries, his historical mysteries featuring raffish sleuth Erast Fandorin sell in the millions in his native Russia. The English-speaking world has been slower to warm to Akunin's charming style, but this, the 3rd installment in the Fandorin cycle, will easily win new fans and cement established ones. The detective yields center stage to Varya Surovova, a hoydenish defender of equal rights so desperate to clear her cryptographer fiance of wrongdoing that she finds herself in the middle of the Russian-Turkish war. But proof is against her Petya's favor, and she and Fandorin, now a titular inspector for the Russian government, must battle false disguises, bloody battles and changing loyalties to find the real culprit -- and possibly broker peace between countries at loggerheads. Akunin favors a lively pace and witty dialogue over full elucidation of the little-known 19th-century war, and it's wise to keep belief seriously suspended as some plot twists strain credulity. But Turkish Gambit is a well-crafted piece of entertainment, and I, for one, am eager to know where Fandorin will land next.

Sympathy Between Humans

By Jodi Compton. Delacorte. 372 pages. $22.

It's difficult to categorize Compton's sophomore effort: is it a police procedural, a suspense thriller, or a study of deeply flawed but inherently believable characters? At varying times, the book is any one of those, but most of all, it's a wrenching, spot-on portrayal of the inner struggle and outward decisions made by Minneapolis-area Detective Sarah Pribek -- a protagonist so complex that her pursuit of justice ironically enables her to blur lines more effectively. Over the course of the book, Pribek, who made her debut in 2004's The 37th Hour, finds extreme ways to wall off her feelings from herself: by facing an internal investigation suspecting her of murder, becoming entangled with a paraplegic practicing medicine under false pretenses, and playing caretaker to the family of a literary sensation harboring catastrophic secrets. Compton plays out the plot strands at a relaxed pace without letting the tension drop, but reserves the greatest effort and energy for showing how Pribek's childhood and turmoil-filled marriage affect her current actions. Sympathy Between Humans shows why the best crime novels are all about character; I don't always like Sarah Pribek, but I remain compelled to uncover the layers she keeps resolutely hidden.

Blood Father

By Peter Craig. Hyperion Books. 336 pages. $24.95.

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