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Mysteries: Dangerous liaisons, a clever Greek and a deadly diamond

By Paul Skenazy
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page BW10

In the Down-Under Boondocks

Garry Disher's The Dragon Man (Soho, $23) is a lean, compelling police procedural that uncovers rural Australian life in all its hazardous dailiness. Detective Inspector Hal Challis runs the police office on the Peninsula, "a comma of land hooking into the sea south-east of Melbourne." Women have been disappearing along the Old Peninsula Highway. One body has been discovered. While mothers and friends appeal for help in finding the other women who are missing, Challis and his mates at the police station try to trace a pattern in the crimes. They also cope with a rash of burglaries and a series of mailboxes set on fire. And a car set on fire. And a house set on fire.

Disher keeps his style curt, his bits of dialogue short, his invasions of the psyche pointed. Weaving back and forth between the police and the criminals, and among the uniformed cops and detectives, Disher smoothly creates a choral portrait of the police and the people they work with and for, delivering a community of stories. Loneliness is as commonplace as the muddy roads and broken fences. The police force that Challis commands is a varied lot, including a wife frustrated by an indifferent husband and rebellious daughter, a cop who falls for a cocaine addict and starts supplying her from the evidence locker, a young recruit recovering from a car accident who is as interested in her surfing teachers as in her police procedures. Challis himself is the "dragon man" of the title (a nickname that refers to his efforts to restore a vintage airplane, a de Havilland DH 84 Dragon Rapide). He fluctuates between exhausted patience on the phone with his ex-wife, who is in prison for trying to kill him, and a discreet and intermittent affair he's having with a local newspaper reporter. Though Disher broadcasts the killer's identity a bit too early, this is still a first-rate piece of crime writing: a dense, hard-nosed portrait of a world unto itself.

The Bard of the 87th Precinct

Ed McBain (a k a Evan Hunter), the grand master of the police procedural, returns in Hark! (Simon & Schuster, $24.95), his 54th book about the 87th Precinct cops, the crimes they solve, and the lives they live outside the station house. The thief known as the Deaf Man has returned, eager for revenge on the woman who left him for dead (he shoots her in the first scene) and eager to mock the 87th crew with a series of teasing clues about his next crime. Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Kling, Cotton Hawes and the rest start receiving messengered notes that seem impossible to decipher. Some prove to be anagrams, some palindromes, some quotes from Shakespeare. The notes appear to define the date, and even hint at the crime -- except they hint at several crimes at once.

Meantime, the detectives are clueless about what to do with their own lives. Carella is trying to avoid thinking about the joint wedding he is planning for his mother and sister. Cotton Hawes is making it with Honey Blair of Channel Four News, until someone starts shooting at the two of them. Kling is worried that his sweetie is meeting secretly with a man she used to date. And the Deaf Man (who calls himself Adam Fen) wanders the city, visiting the New York Public Library to view an original copy of Shakespeare's First Folio on display, showing intense interest in a classical violin recital. He shacks up with a prostitute named Melissa Summers, whom he sends on errands to find delivery men for his notes to Carella and Co. And he waits.

McBain is playing for laughs, and he gets them, working skillfully to create just enough intrigue to keep us interested in the bad jokes, the puzzling riddles and the domestic melodramas. The whole performance is deft and light, like a magician's sleight of hand: The trick is pulled off while you look the other way. There's nothing lasting here, except the pleasure of watching a master having fun -- and that's a kind of Shakespearean delight in itself.

Murder Greek Style

Just as the Olympics have brought Greece to the world's attention comes the first American publication of Petros Markaris's Greek crime fiction. Deadline in Athens, ably translated by David Connolly (Grove, $23), features Inspector Costas Haritos, an edgy, cynical policeman in a contemporary Athens more notable for its traffic jams and rainy weather than its classical ruins. Like all good fictional cops, Haritos is in trouble with his superiors and unwilling to settle for the convenient, if unconvincing, solution. So when an Armenian quickly confesses to killing two other Armenians, Haritos is willing to follow a tip from Janna, a zealous, ambitious TV reporter, that there is more to the case than appears. Then Janna herself is found murdered, just before she was set to air a sensational news story. And soon after, Janna's successor is found dead as well.

The evidence from one murder slowly intersects with the next, leading Haritos to an accused child molester who has just been freed, a love affair Janna had with her station manager, and the shipping records of a well-connected travel agency. At home he struggles unsuccessfully to appease his wife, Adriani, who spends her days watching TV crime stories, and to find time to see his daughter, who is away at school.

But the real story here is the geography and culture of Athens. From Haritos's wily boss Ghikas, the chief of security, to the Armani-suited corporate TV executives, this is a world where the rich and powerful rule. Newscasters point a finger at an innocent man, and Haritos spends days tracking him down as much to protect as to arrest him; Haritos builds a case against a TV producer only to find himself facing suspension. Ghikas urges him to be more "flexible," while Haritos charges on, pushing his way through doors that want to remain closed.

Deadline is a satisfying if sometimes slow-paced read, the wayward elements of the plot wandering in and out of focus as Haritos reaches one wrong conclusion after another. Still, the material is rich, the characters are drawn with depth, and Haritos himself is an intriguing find: zealous in his work, more in love with his wife than he will admit, suspicious by training, his only relief from work being the hours he spends learning new words in his dictionaries at home. Two more Haritos tales are promised for the near future, and I look forward to reading them and spending more time with this snarling, amiable Greek.

Multi-Faceted Plotting

Skye Kathleen Moody's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Venus Diamond returns for her seventh outing in The Good Diamond (St. Martin's, $24.95). This time Diamond's name claims major attention as a pun that echoes from start to finish in a story about diamond trading and the international arms trade. Big Jim Hardy, a reclusive prospector, discovers a 384-carat rough diamond he calls "Lac de Lune," after the lakebed where he found it, just outside the small prospecting town of Yellowknife in Canada. But as he is about to depart to have the diamond cleaved, his compound is invaded, he is killed, the diamond is stolen, and his geologist is taken hostage. Before he dies, however, Hardy has time to send an e-mail and scrawl Venus Diamond's name in blood.

Still with me? Because now the plot really gets farfetched. Sgt. Roland Mackenzie of the Royal Canadian Mounties is convinced that Hardy has written his murderer's name and so arrests Diamond, who then reveals that Big Jim Hardy was really Buzz Radke, a U.S. federal undercover agent whom Diamond worked with years before. The escaping thieves are, it seems, part of a militant group that dubs itself the Nation of God's Chosen Soldiers (or "Company 8"), headquartered on the Lay-a-Day Chicken Ranch just across the U.S.-Canadian border. They want to trade the diamond for arms, through a diamond trader in New York who is sending the guns out West with two hoodlums in a truck with New Jersey license plates. Evidence turns up that seems to link Mackenzie to the killing, so suddenly he is arrested and needs to turn to Diamond for help trying to clear his name. Three master diamond cutters -- in New York City, Antwerp and South Africa -- are working on models of the huge diamond to see if they can successfully cleave the delicate stone. The New York traders are ruthlessly working to procure the diamond and frighten competitors away from the chase. And there are rumors that the stolen diamond itself might be a fake substituted for the real stone to prevent just the kind of theft that occurred.

Moody has always liked to stuff her books with plots until they burst at the seams, and this outing is no different. White supremacists, greedy hoodlums, devious diamond cutters, desperate jewel traders; Canadian tundra, Seattle digs, border chicken farms, New York streets, Antwerp hovels; a militant's wife who offers a captive a tape recorder and tapes so she can explain her life (and fill in the plot details); a hoodlum who deserts his post to sit in the library -- the unbelievable elements and events spiral out at an alarming pace. Lost in the frenzy is the issue of diamonds-for-guns -- the trade in what are called "blood" diamonds that support arms shipments to militant groups worldwide. Lost too is Venus herself, who becomes a cipher that we watch from increasing distances as she tries to make sense of the confusing events. You will not be bored by this book. It is filled with interesting diamond lore, and it clips along, jumping with often comic cunning among its various plots. But Moody seems so anxious to fit them all in that she sometimes sketches in her stories rather than writing them out. The result is a confusing, faceless tale. •

Paul Skenazy teaches literature and writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is provost of Kresge College.

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