Books In Brief // Crime

November 11, 2007|By Sarah Wienman | Sarah Wienman,[Special to The Sun]

THE GHOST Robert Harris Simon & Schuster/ 335 pages.

Robert Harris made his reputation with alternate historical thrillers like Enigma and Fatherland and has recently turned his attention to the double dealing and bloodthirstiness that was ancient Rome. So it comes as a mild surprise to read this wholly contemporary work from him until you realize that the clothing and habits may be different but the basics -- betrayal, murder, political machinations -- remain the same, and once again brought to life with brilliant effect. The titular ghost is the unnamed protagonist recruited to whip into shape the turgid memoirs of ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (essentially a heightened, more tortured stand-in for Harris's former close friend Tony Blair) after ghostwriter No. 1 succumbs to a mysterious death by drowning near Lang's new home of Martha's Vineyard. Harris nails the philosophical quandary of writing someone else's biography and the shark-like tendencies of the publishing industry, but never forgets this is a thriller with an ending that shocked even this jaded columnist.

DEAD STREET Mickey Spillane Hard Case Crime/ 220 pages.

When he died in 2006, Mickey Spillane still had the power to provoke intense debate for his brutal, sparely written Mike Hammer novels even as fans wondered whether his final work had already been published. Thanks to Hard Case Crime (and next year, Harcourt) we'll be seeing a number of posthumous novels prepared for publication by the Mick's longtime friend and fan Max Allan Collins (who wrote the book's final three chapters, though it's impossible to tell). First up is this fast-paced number starring Jack Stang, whose retirement after a long career as New York City police detective is put on hold when he gets a tip that his long-dead love Bettie is, in fact, alive (albeit blinded and conveniently amnesiac) and living with the retirees in Florida. Once Stang shows up, the safe haven becomes anything but with arriving mobsters, attempted killings and a connection to a long-ago conspiracy that the new baddies want very much to revive. The plot's preposterous, Stang is a 1940s anachronism and the writing relies too heavily on italics and exclamation points, but so what? A Spillane novel aims to entertain and this one succeeds rather well.

HIDDEN MOON James Church St. Martin's Minotaur/ 290 pages

Like its predecessor, A Corpse in the Koryo, this sophomore effort from the pseudonymous Church is something of an anti-mystery: the suspense lies not in finding out who did it, but whether Inspector O will be allowed to investigate it. The rules of detection are quite different, with many more roadblocks, in North Korea, and Hidden Moon captures the frustration felt by O at how difficult it is simply to get his work done. The inciting event is a bank robbery, instantly fishy because it is the first-ever in the capital city of Pyongyang and because in a country where free speech is a commodity and outsiders stick out, the growing number of foreigners O encounters -- such as the seductive, Scottish passported bank manager Miss Chon -- raise a number of alarm bells. Church takes care to create a credible mystery, but the real pleasure of Hidden Moon is its conversations, loaded down with layers of secrecy and suspicion that surface words are meaningless in the face of buried intention. Thanks to Church, mystery readers are learning about the minds and hearts of North Koreans - and putting a human face on a world so far away.

THE CURE FOR REMEMBERING Ruth E. Weissberger Melville House/ 228 pages.

Weissberger's debut is very much a case of writing what you know. The author, who practices internal medicine in New Haven, Conn., makes heroine Nora Sternberg a doctor, one with intimate knowledge of surgical practice, hospital culture and the arrogance that affects physicians whose strong reputations give them something of a God complex. That complex comes through in a personal way for Nora when her great-aunt Selma dies after supposedly routine surgery on her hip - the latest mysterious surgical death at Lafayette Medical Center. The Cure for Remembering is marred with the first novel's traditional pitfalls, such as an over-reliance on backstory and a desire to walk the reader step-by-step into the plot, but its medical verisimilitude and appealing heroine add enough promise to look out for future installments.

Sarah Weinman reviews crime fiction every month for The Sun.

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