Icons crumble, Native Americans rumble

Crime Fiction

November 27, 2005|By SARAH WEINMAN | SARAH WEINMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Facing Rushmore

David Lozell Martin

Simon & Schuster / 260 pages

David Martin is a writer who defies pigeonholing. He's tried his hand at a sweeping love story, a serial-killer thriller and an erotic New Orleans tale, but Facing Rushmore may be his weirdest, most audacious book. It begins conventionally enough with FBI agent Charlie Hart's interrogation of John Brown Dog, a Native American dissident who may be implicated in the mysterious, seemingly causeless destruction of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Brown Dog explains that it is the opening salvo in an upcoming war to return the natives to their rightful place as America's primary dwellers, which sounds strange enough - until Mount Rushmore crumbles to pieces, one president at a time, with only a mysterious black tar left as evidence of any such destruction. That's when things turn truly bizarre, and for a straight-arrow, unassuming family man like Hart, it's enough for him to change his worldview completely - or die in the process. Facing Rushmore poses the provocative question of what right Native Americans have to claim their land back, albeit in slightly over-the-top fashion. But Martin excels in hooking the reader until a remarkable finish.

White Stone Day

John MacLachlan Gray

St. Martin's Minotaur / 350 pages

For Edmund Whitty, the madcap and troublemaking journalist introduced in 2003's The Fiend in Human, life's daily rewards come in the form of bylines in Victorian-era London's most lurid, salacious newspapers. But such successes are proving more scarce, and to avoid the smell of desperation as rank as the "Great Stink" (when all of London smelled like sewer waste), Whitty accepts an offer to expose a renowned psychic for the charlatan he's supposed to be - even though said psychic knows quite a bit about the secret suicide of Whitty's older brother. The trail leads Whitty to Oxford and a quiet estate where two young sisters are under the care and education of Reverend William Boltbyn (think Lewis Carroll). Are Boltbyn's attentions that of a kindly gentleman or a result of more sinister motivations? The answers lie in a tangled maze of mysterious deaths, disturbing photographs and the independent spirits of the girls in question, especially 10-year-old Eliza. Whitty's investigation is filled with good humor and strong writing, and Eliza's narration grips the reader with emotional depth and foreboding. The result is a resolutely creepy novel showcasing Gray's gift for memorable historical mystery fiction.

Cover Your Assets

Patricia Smiley

Mysterious Press / 290 pages

Perhaps the kiss of death for a mystery novel is to deem its heroine "feisty," as it's rather like saying a beautiful woman is "cute." So seeing the word emblazoned on the front and back covers of Smiley's sophomore effort might put some readers off, which would be a real shame, as Tucker Sinclair is a character well worth spending time with. The former high-powered financial trader has just recovered from her first foray into sleuthing (detailed in last year's False Profits) when she gets word of the murder of Hollywood agent (and her one-time boyfriend) Evan Brice. Things turn sticky because police suspect the involvement of Evan's wife, Cissy - who decided back in college that having Evan was better than being Tucker's best friend. But old loyalties win out when Cissy asks Tucker for help, and the investigation ventures down a road littered with shady dealings, rising starlets, porn videos and biker gangs, not to mention Tucker's actress mother and her New Age obsessions. Smiley keeps the complications coming and moves the story along at a speedy clip thanks to a breezy, good-humored voice that's tremendously enjoyable.

Comrades in Miami

Jose Latour

Grove/Atlantic / 324 pages

Victoria Valiente may well be one of the most fascinating characters to appear in a crime novel in my memory. By day, she's a nondescript, fortysomething intelligence officer in the Cuban government who professes her loyalty to her country to Fidel Castro himself. But by night, she's a wild card - whether in bed with her computer expert husband, Manuel Pardo, or plotting in meticulous detail how to defect in high style (thanks to Pardo's way with electronic transfers of millions of dollars over time). It appears that the scheme will work, too, but for the unwitting involvement of Cuban expat Elliot Steil (first introduced in the Edgar-nominated Outcast), thanks to his work with a trading company keeping track of the money Pardo and Valiente have been looting all these years. And when that much money's involved, it's only a matter of time before everything goes to hell in a seriously violent way. Latour excels in showing how the dream of starting a new life in America is built upon layers of backstabbing and betrayal, creating an entertaining social commentary about a country in major upheaval.

The Lighthouse

P.D. James

Alfred A. Knopf / 335 pages

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