roundup/ crime fiction

November 02, 2008|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The Private Patient

By P.D. James

Knopf / 354 pages / $25.95

When an author reaches her ninth decade, readers naturally wonder how many more books she'll be able to write. And while P.D. James, 88, doesn't spell out that this is the last Adam Dalgliesh novel, there are subtle clues of twilight descending upon one of the best-admired British detectives of the past half-century. The police commander is ever closer to reaching a definitive arrangement with longtime love Emma Lavenham. He investigates the surprising murder of a woman two days after plastic surgery almost by proxy, handing off most of the grunt work to DI Kate Miskin. And James seems even more disinterested in the procedural aspects of death investigation; any time she writes of plot matters, the writing loses any trace of spark. But The Private Patient picks up near the end with an emotionally devastating subplot. If only the murder resolution struck a similar note.

The Victoria Vanishes

By Christopher Fowler

Bantam / 340 pages / $24

Speaking of advance age, consider the octogenarian investigative duo of Arthur Bryant and John May, returning for a sixth and somber go-round. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is ever closer to being shut down. Bryant's legendary mental legerdemain is starting to slip. So when middle-aged women start dying in mysterious circumstances around London's oldest and finest pubs, the duo are once more on the case, ever pressing because Bryant's memory gaps prove to be a key turning point. It's tremendous fun to watch Bryant and May work their magic, but The Victoria Vanishes strikes a strong note of poignancy about ageism. Though Fowler seems to signal the series' end, I can't help but hope there's more life yet for the old boys.

The Unpossessed City

By Jon Fasman

Penguin Press / 339 pages / $25.95

Four years after The Geographer's Library, Fasman's striking sophomore effort takes the current temperature of latter-day Moscow and finds it about to boil over in intrigue and guessing games. The imploding life of Jim Vilatzer, a 30-something in deep debt to a couple of Serbian gamblers, gets a reprieve when a friend hooks him up with a job interviewing those who survived the horrors of the Gulag. Jim goes to Moscow and surprises himself by loving the city's idiosyncrasies. But a chance romantic encounter with a woman embroils Jim in a power struggle between competing intelligence agencies, transforming fatalism into potentially fatal activity. Fasman scores points for evoking the Moscow of now - a city of contradictions that never fails to surprise.

Sarah Weinman reviews crime fiction every month for The Baltimore Sun. Visit her at www.sarahweinman.com.

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