Horrors in 'Nanking'

a local hero experiences mounting troubles

an anti-hero investigates

Crime Fiction

April 24, 2005|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

The Devil of Nanking

By Mo Hayder. Grove / Atlantic. 360 pages. $24.

There are some novels that infect the brain and never let go, no matter how disturbing the subject matter. Hayder, previously known for her gory serial killer novels, manages this feat by combining the story of one of history's worst atrocities with one young Englishwoman's quest to find solace for her demons and answers to questions eating at her soul. The waifish Grey Hutchins is a university dropout long obsessed by the 1937 Nanking massacre with a burning need to discover film footage of a specific incident that no one else believes exists. She travels to Tokyo to confront the alleged owner, a sociology professor who forces her to make a bargain: the film in exchange for a mysterious elixir used by an elderly gangster to maintain his good health. But in making the deal, Grey enters a shadowy world of hostess clubs, fetish freaks and decades-old secrets so terrible that brutal murder seems preferable. Hayder writes of past and present horrors with beautifully understated prose, made more so by Grey's innocence in the face of mounting evil. The Devil of Nanking is brilliant, haunting and scary as hell -- a book not soon forgotten.

Company Man

By Joseph Finder. St. Martin's Press. 520 pages. $24.95.

The most effective contemporary thrillers take a nice man who is already in trouble, add a heaping pile of new problems, and after those are satisfactorily resolved, twist the knife even further. That's the precise trajectory followed by Nick Conover, the protagonist of Company Man and CEO of Stratton, a small-town furniture corporation. Once seen as a local hero, layoffs of nearly half the company have recast him as the town's villain. Fate further screws him over with conniving partners, a dead wife and slowly disintegrating family, and a stalker spraying graffiti all over Conover's gated house. And then things really get bad. Finder (who last mined corporate culture in 2004's Paranoia) expertly keeps the pages turning as he ups the stakes chapter after chapter in Conover's professional and personal life. He is equally confident in portraying the small stuff involving family conflicts, marriages in turmoil and especially the telling details of corporate life. Company Man is occasionally too much blueprint and not enough finished product, but it more than achieves its main goal of entertaining the reader -- as a good thriller is supposed to do.

Bleedout

By Joan Brady. Touchstone. 370 pages. $24.95.

How thin is the line between justice and revenge? And how deep can betrayal truly be? These are some of the questions asked in this thought-provoking thriller from American expat Brady, a former Whitbread Prize winner. Hugh Freyl was a scion in his tony Springfield, Ill., community, a lawyer tirelessly working to find undiscovered gems lurking within prison walls and creating men out of monsters. One man, convicted murderer David Marion, certainly owes his life to Freyl -- but when the lawyer is murdered, Marion is the obvious suspect. Who better to blame than a young man forged by violent acts? But throw out any assumptions about what kind of book this will be, because Brady is too smart to take shortcuts without sacrificing continued maximum tension. Instead, she creates a vivid portrait of David, a perversely appealing anti-hero whose investigation into Freyl's murder derives less from loyalty and altruism than from an agenda uncertain even to himself. The only quibble is with Bleedout's hook: Freyl narrates post-mortem, and, as appealing a voice as he is, he seems too fastidious not to have documented in writing the road leading to his demise.

The Mourning Sexton

By Michael Baron. Doubleday. 312 pages. $23.95.

David Hirsch is a lawyer versed all too well in betrayal and redemption. A seven-year prison stint for embezzlement erased his career climb, destroyed his marriage and severed him from his children. Only his rediscovery of Judaism set him back on the path of decency. Then, a chance encounter during a Sabbath service with Alzheimer's-ridden Abe Shifrin changes Hirsch's focus dramatically. What seems to be a straightforward wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Shifrin's dead daughter Judith spirals into an unholy mess involving staged murder, kickbacks and a multi-million dollar lawsuit settlement gone so terribly awry that Hirsch's investigation can only imperil him and those closest to him. The pseudonymous Baron (better known as Michael Kahn, the author of the Rachel Gold novels) is an experienced hand at building suspense and maintaining tension, but balances Hirsch's complex back story with present events less successfully. Though Hirsch's commitment to Judaism and to rebuilding broken relationships make for an intriguing protagonist, the supporting players range from vague to slightly cliched. Still, The Mourning Sexton seems to herald the start of a new series with particular promise.

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