A corpse wrecks a suburban home's Feng Shui serenity, and other sinister doings. By Maureen Corrigan

By Maureen Corrigan
Sunday, May 8, 2005

House Proud

The immortals of the mystery genre enlighten readers about the Big Life Questions such as the existence of evil and the twisted forms that love -- romantic and familial -- can assume. Then there's that category of not-so-immortal mysteries that educate readers about smaller issues, among them cooking, crocheting, cat care and antiques. Evil Intentions (Perseverance/John Daniel; paperback, $13.95), by Denise Osborne, belongs to this amiably instructive second category. Subtitled "A Feng Shui Mystery," it explains why placing a bed directly in front of a door ("the funeral position") is a no-no, and it gently expounds on the energizing influence of plants, wind chimes and red dragons as decorating accents. The frontispiece of the novel even features a miniature Bagua, or color wheel, to help readers rearrange their own living spaces for maximum harmony. But Evil Intentions has some jarring interior elements whose bad mojo can't be dispelled by more felicitous placement, such as that obtrusive corpse hanging in the laundry room of an otherwise innocuous suburban Virginia home.

Osborne's gimmick of having Salome Waterhouse, her Japanese-American amateur detective, hold down a day job as a Feng Shui practitioner is an inspired one: After all, both callings require an eye for detail and a sensitivity to atmosphere. In this, Waterhouse's fourth outing, the mystery involves the machinations of a "snakehead" called Duncan Mah, who's involved in smuggling desperate Chinese workers into the United States. Salome already has depleted her ch'i (vital life energy) battling Mah in an earlier novel in the series; in this encounter, she confronts the vicious Mah on her own turf, when her Georgetown mansion is the target of a firebombing that will necessitate some big-bucks renovation. Both that act of arson and the aforementioned hanging corpse (of a professional home organizer) are suspected to be Mah's handiwork.

Truth to tell, the plot of Evil Intentions , while mildly diverting, mostly provides readers with an excuse to tag along with the egalitarian Salome as she visits the homes of the elite and the underprivileged alike and tosses out spirit-depleting clutter to make room for invigorating red slipcovers and jade plants. The book's Washington, D.C., location offers a special treat to area readers. Salome and her intrepid investigative assistants -- ex-husband Gabriel Hoya (Hoya, get it?) and local private eye Judah Freeman -- mull over clues as they suck down suds in the Tombs (the only pub within stumbling distance of Georgetown University), wade through the weekend crowds on M Street, and drive around the "sterile, combed-air feel" of Crystal City. By the end of this entertaining mystery, everything and everyone have been put in their rightful places, thanks to Salome's Feng Shui skills and the timely intervention of fate.

Soiled Sleuth

Gasa-Gasa Girl (Delta; paperback, $12), by Naomi Hira-hara, also features a Japanese-American amateur investigator with a flair for weeding out excess detail and grasping essential truths. Masao "Mas" Arai is an aging survivor of Hiroshima who has made his living as a gardener amid the lush landscape of Southern California. A widower, Mas is the father of an estranged adult daughter, Mari, the "gasa-gasa" girl of the title: "Gasa-gasa. That's what [Mas's late wife] Chizuko called her. Their gasa-gasa baby, constantly restless, constantly moving. . . . Yet she still somehow escaped falling off the edge."

When Gasa-Gasa Girl opens, it looks as though Mari's luck may have just run out. She works for her hakujin (Caucasian) husband, Lloyd -- who, like Mas, is a landscape gardener -- on a big project to turn a crumbling Brooklyn estate into a museum showcasing the history of Japanese Americans on the East Coast. The project, however, has been plagued by vandalism. To make matters worse, the paranoid founder of the project -- a half-Japanese, half-Irish industrialist named Kazuhiko "Kazzy" Ouchi -- has started firing employees in frustration. Lloyd fears that if he doesn't whip the estate garden into shape soon, he'll be next to get the pink slip. Lloyd and Mari can't afford to lose their employee health insurance, especially because their infant son is suffering from a serious case of jaundice. So, in desperation, Mari phones her father and asks him, vaguely, for "help." Delighted to hear from his daughter, Mas flies to New York, only to discover he has been summoned to work as an unpaid laborer on the landscaping.

Except that Mas turns up more than topsoil on the job. No sooner does he start to mulch than he discovers Kazzy's cold corpse under a pile of leaves and coffee grounds. The plot of Gasa-Gasa Girl is as knotty as a rootball and reaches deep into the history of Japanese Americans before and during World War II. The most distinctive aspect of this mystery, however, is its sense of sadness. In Mas, Hirahara has created an affecting picture of a loving but limited father, one who struggles to connect with his daughter but is doomed to fall short. The question of how many ways father--daughter relationships can be damaged (Mas and Mari aren't the only troubled pair here), rather than the puzzle of who-shot-the-corpse-in-the-garden, is the real stumper in this novel.

The Proof Is in the Pages

John Dunning's "Bookman" series, featuring Cliff Janeway, teaches readers fascinating facts about the rare book business as it serves up rollicking suspense plots that tend to be heavy on bibliophiles gone berserk. That Janeway himself -- a book dealer who moonlights as a book detective -- is a mild misanthrope with a wry sense of humor only adds to the fun. The creepy emotional entanglements that come to light in The Sign of the Book (Scribner, $25), the fourth Janeway novel, might just persuade our hero to spend the rest of his life curled up with a good book, eschewing human contact altogether.

Janeway's current girlfriend and new business partner, Erin D'Angelo, asks him for a big favor at the outset of this story. An old but estranged friend, Laura Marshall, has just been charged with the murder of her husband, Bobby, at their isolated mountaintop home in Colorado. Horrifically, the couple's three children were asleep in the house when the shooting occurred. Even though Erin has never forgiven the treacherous Laura for poaching Bobby (Erin's first love), she pleads with Janeway to investigate the murder. As an added incentive, Erin mentions that Bobby had amassed a fabulous book collection that Janeway should inventory (and get first crack at!) in order to help defray the investigative and legal costs of Laura's defense.

Of course, other book vultures have already begun circling the Marshall house. As Janeway fends them off, he penetrates deeper into the mysteries of Erin's relationship with Laura, the Marshall family's dysfunction, and the hard cruelty that can lurk behind even the wobbliest exterior. The climax here feels a bit borrowed-from-the-movies, but otherwise the plot twists in gratifyingly unexpected ways. The Sign of the Book , which is set roughly a decade ago, is imbued with a melancholy about the sustainability of human relationships and the longevity of the old-fashioned book business in light of the growing intrusions of the Internet:

"There would be incredible ease, instant knowledge available to everyone: even those who have no idea how to use it would become 'experts.' Books would become just another word for money, and that would bring out the hucksters and the fast-buck artists."

Sounds like a premise for the next "Bookman" novel to me.

Parisian Sprawl

Unexpectedly deadly demands made in the name of friendship also inspire the plot of Tonino Benacquista's quirky Holy Smoke (Bitter Lemon; translated from the French by Adriana Hunter; paperback, $13.95). The novel's roguish narrator is Tonio Polsinelli, who (like Benacquista himself) was born in France to Italian parents. On a dutiful visit back to his parents in the suburbs of Paris, Tonio runs into a childhood pal named Dario, now "working" as a gigolo. Dario asks the educated Tonio to write a love letter for him in Italian, and, feeling guilty about their disparate stations in life, Tonio agrees. No sooner is the letter dispatched than Dario is found murdered, execution-style, with a single bullet to the brain. When Dario's will is read, Tonio receives another shock: Dario has bequeathed him a failing vineyard in a remote village outside of Naples. Tonio travels to Italy to investigate this weird windfall and is assailed by tough-talking representatives of the Mafia and the Catholic Church who threaten him with a one-way ticket to Il Purgatorio if he doesn't turn over the worthless looking land, pronto.

The phrase "black comedy" was invented for just this kind of book. Tonio's worldview is so cheerfully off-kilter that, even when the story line gets muddled, his voice lures the reader along. (There's an ambitious if not quite successful attempt here to interweave Tonio's tale with a narrative of his father's World War II escapades in the Italian Army.) Tonio irreverently inveighs against romantic love, cancer and that most tired of targets, the suburbs (in this case, the suburbs of Paris):

"God, you suburbs are depressing. You've got nothing going for you. There you are with your eyes turned towards Paris and your arse towards the countryside. . . . The only thing that changes with you is the lunacy of the architects. . . . They're having a ball with you, you're their bacchanal, their orgy, their bulimia. They gorge themselves on all this space. . . . You'll just stretch out a bit further, you'll eat up more space around you but you'll never turn up your toes. And that's the only true thing about you. You can't be disfigured, you've never had a face."

By the time Holy Smoke reaches its waggish conclusion, Tonio will feel like kneeling down and kissing the parking-lot pavements of those formless Paris suburbs--any place other than a vineyard will look just bellissima to him.


In Dorothy Johnston's glum Australian mystery The Trojan Dog (Thomas Dunne, $23.95), Sandra Mahoney, a single mother who has just returned to the workplace, struggles to learn something beyond the basics about computers in order to clear her prickly boss of an embezzlement charge. (Thankfully, Johnston alludes to those computer lessons rather than painstakingly outlining them for the reader.) As the plot unwinds, we learn some details about Sandra's (temporary?) separation from her husband as well as her tangled relationship with that boss. While the occasional descriptions of Sandra's working-mom juggling act ring true, this is a mystery whose defining aspects (story line, setting and Sandra's own character) are so muted that they barely register. I was ready to punch out my time card long before the resolute Sandra finally turned off her computer and went home to her son. ยท

Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."

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