Life-and-death fight for Mosley's Rawlins

Mysteries & Thrillers

September 25, 2005|By SARAH WEINMAN | SARAH WEINMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CINNAMON KISS

Walter Mosley

Little, Brown / 308 pages.

Reviewing books is hardly an objective pursuit, but it's made more subjective when trying to measure a writer's potential for posterity. Walter Mosley's was established almost as soon as he introduced his signature protagonist, Easy Rawlins, a decade and a half ago. Now, with Cinnamon Kiss, Easy hasmoved forward almost 20 years, surviving riots, racial tensions and thorny relationships in achieving a complex balance. When he is asked to investigate the disappearance of a prominent lawyer and his unsettlingly beautiful assistant (and possible lover), Easy would much rather turn the case down. But with his daughter critically ill, he'll do everything to get the money to save her life - even sacrifice current loves and old friendships. Though the plot is strong enough on its own, it takes a back seat, as always, to Mosley's continued quest to chronicle the 20th century through the eyes of an individual, unforgettable black protagonist. Though Cinnamon Kiss is one of Mosley's best recent efforts, its value is how it fits into one of the genre's most notable bodies ofwork.

HALF BROKEN THINGS

Morag Joss

Delacorte / 300 pages

Take an aging house-sitter ensconced in the lavish country house she's being paid to look after while the owners are abroad for a year. Add in an enigmatic ex-con and a desperate, pregnant young woman and you have the recipe for the unlikely new family forming the claustrophobic nucleus of Joss' fourth novel (following the just-published Sara Selkirk trio of mysteries). Steph is fleeing her demeaning boyfriend, frantic to keep her baby. By accepting a ride from Michael, she starts her life anew and spurs him to discover his own roots, which leads them both to Jean, unlikely queen of a country house not her own. Their alliance is immediate and exclusionary until a visitor happens upon them by chance, forcing the trio to examine what keeps them together - and what measures, however drastic, they must take to stay that way. Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2002 (where it received the CWA's Silver Dagger), Half Broken Things is a stunning portrayal of damaged souls whose actions, however deplorable, are logically rooted. Joss writes with empathy and elegance, never trivializing her characters and building to the novel's shocking but proper conclusion.

THE DOOR TO BITTERNESS

Martin Limon

Soho / 280 pages

Ask a genre aficionado to name excellent purveyors of the police procedural and Martin Limon's name likely won't make the short list, even though his 1970s-set series featuring U.S. Army cops George Sueno and Ernie Bascom has racked up many an accolade since their debut in 1992's Jade Lady Burning. But only three additional appearances since then (and nothing in seven years) might explain the oversight, easily rectified by reading this novel. Once again, Sueno and Bascom are stationed in Seoul, South Korea, Americans trying to catch bad guys and navigate a foreign culture. But their dual pursuits become harder when Sueno's evening with a beautiful, smiling woman ends with him waking in an alley with a bump on his head and his badge and gun stolen-by a ragtag group that has begun robbing and killing in casinos and seedy joints around town. Employing characteristically unorthodox methods-as well as Bascom's hair-trigger temper - the duo wade through the city's muck and grime to find the killers while wondering whether their Army careers will see another week. Limon's crisp, clear storytelling opens a door to another world and leaves one hoping the next installment won't be so long in arriving.

OFFICER DOWN

Theresa Schwegel

St. Martin's Minotaur / 280 pages

Regular readers of this column may recognize this reviewer's fondness for crime novels featuring flawed heroines ruled by one wrong choice after another. And Schwegel's impressive debut, introducing Chicago cop Samantha Mack, fits the bill. Samantha ("Smack" to her colleagues and friends) goes with her partner, Fred, to stake out and possibly arrest a well-known child molester. But the bust is bungled and a shootout ensues, killing Fred and landing her in the hospital with a story that doesn't jibe with the physical evidence. What follows is Samantha's attempt to clear her name and discover whom she should trust - her married lover, a seemingly sympathetic internal affairs officer, or no one? What Schwegel does so well, especially for a first-timer, is use Samantha's growing unease that her life is on a steeply declining course as a means of moving the story along. The descriptions are terse and the style almost staccato, in parallel with the layers of betrayal andmistrust revealed. Officer Down is not for those who want their heroines unsullied and idealized, but is an excellent choice for contemporary noir fans.

THE MAD COOK OF PYMATUNING

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.

Simon & Schuster / 300 pages

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