Books In Brief // Crime Fiction

July 06, 2008|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter Knopf / 517 pages / $26.95

When Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter moved to fiction with 2002's The Emperor of Ocean Park, the response to its labyrinthine storytelling and plot was immediate and best-selling. Two books later, Carter's style still sprawls - Palace Council is well over 500 pages - but his focus is sharper and centered more tightly upon his characters, even as his scope widens to the political and social turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s. Ostensibly a chart of the rise and eventual fall of a secret Harlem-based society crossing gender, racial and political lines, Palace Council more successfully delineates the turbulent life and career of Eddie Wesley, a James Baldwin-esque writer beloved by Harlem's upper echelons and native sons. His literary success stands in contrast to personal turmoil that begins when his wayward sister Junie disappears and deepens when her fate appears to be bound not only to that of the woman he loves, married newspaper editor Aurelia Garland, but to America itself. Palace Council, has the feel of social novels from several decades ago, marking it as a throwback and a welcome tonic to contemporary thriller flourishes. Carter seamlessly layers major events into the narrative, showing how one man's life is affected and affects the course of history.

The Likeness by Tana French Viking / 467 pages / $24.95

American-born Irishwoman Tana French's debut novel, In the Woods, met with resounding raves upon its release last year, culminating in the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her already-signature blend of psychological insight, beautiful writing and wry humor is on display once more in The Likeness, made more outstanding because she shifts her point-of-view focus from the charming unreliability of Robert Ryan to his now former partner, Cassie Maddox. Cassie's undercover past catches up with her when the body of a young woman - bearing a startling resemblance to Cassie and using her old alias - is discovered, prompting a seemingly contrived but wholly believable plan of infiltration and investigation that has Cassie explore the nature and meaning of friendship, identity and motivation for murder. The nearly 500-page volume begs the reader to move slowly, to savor French's turns of phrase and simmering suspense until the prospect of finishing shuts all distractions out. Cassie's tough yet brittle personality, borne of a damaged past and uncertain future, adds necessary gravitas to a story that builds toward epic-tragedy proportions. Expect The Likeness to figure on many awards lists, as it should.

Still Waters by Nigel McCrery Pantheon / 278 pages / $23.95

Veteran novelist and nonfiction writer Nigel McCrery starts a new series featuring detective inspector Mark Lapslie, gifted (or cursed, depending on the situation) with synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the senses are so mixed up that one tastes sounds and smells sights. While that may hinder the ability to go out to restaurants or to listen to music, it does come in handy for Lapslie's latest investigation, beginning with the discovery of an unidentified woman with fingers sheared off her right hand. Oddly, Lapslie's condition seems muted, overshadowed by more stereotypical depictions of a cantankerous personality, but Still Waters' second point of view - a killer who owes significant debt to the seemingly gentle but quietly delusional old ladies of Arsenic and Old Lace - is creepy, menacing and downright frightening. This reader often wanted to shout at would-be victims to steer clear and avoid certain death, while also empathizing with the killer, who suffered childhood abuse. The result is a page-turner teeming with tension, but for future installments, McCrery would be wise to inject Lapslie with a little more personality.

Singularity by Kathryn Casey St. Martin's Minotaur / 310 pages / $24.95

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