Anyone afraid that American culture is turning homogenized and denatured need only visit the vital, layered immigrant neighborhoods in the "archipelago" -- Reggie Nadelson's word -- of New York City. In Nadelson's Disturbed Earth (Walker, $24), the fifth of her vibrant Artie Cohen mysteries, the Russian section of Brooklyn, Brighton Beach, is "a weird slice out of the former Soviet Union." The place "had become a kind of theme park with stuff in the shops -- dresses with glitter, big furs, fancy china -- you probably couldn't even find in Moscow anymore." There are the borscht joints, the sweet-tea rooms, the Hello Gorgeous Beauty Salon.
There are also epidemic Russian-style gangsterism and violent crime, which are Cohen's preoccupations as an NYPD detective working on crimes against children. The bloody clothes and sneakers of a child are discovered on the beach at Coney Island, though no body turns up immediately. Cohen is haunted by one of his old, unsolved cases in which a little girl's body was discovered with her feet cut off, and he fears that the psychopath responsible may have resurfaced.
Cohen's boss is Sonny Lippert, whose work "on cases connected with children was what made [him] nuts. It put him out on a fragile emotional limb, it caused his divorce, it made him febrile." Cohen and Lippert work in a world where "kids were big business; they were cheap. . . . And not just in Asia or some remote part of Africa where they stole children to be used as soldiers or sex slaves. In Eastern Europe you could buy a kid for sex for less than you could rent a car."
Cohen isn't quite the walking train wreck that Lippert is, but he shows the wear and tear of an obsessive cop's life. Born in Russia, Cohen left Moscow at 14, made it to New York via Israel, and with his brains, five languages and penchant for order, soon landed at NYPD. Now he keeps company with steady, decent, unglamorous Maxine Crabbe, a Sept. 11 widow with two kids. He sees himself and Maxine as no more than "friends who fell into bed together once in a while." But Maxine wants more, and just as Cohen is breathing down a murderer's neck, she provokes a crisis by saying so.
The amazing Nadelson -- she gets a jacket blurb from Salman Rushdie, no less -- can't write a character who doesn't charge off the page. Billy Farone is Cohen's godson, a strange, beautiful boy as passionate about fishing as Cohen is about locking up dangerous people, and who himself disappears. Businessman Tolya Sverdloff, son of a famous Moscow actor, "knew his way around high culture, but he played the part of an international hood." If you think capitalism is rough in, say, Houston, get this: Business rivals once kidnapped Sverdloff's teenage daughter, locked her in a closet for a week, and cut off her finger. He tells Cohen, "They sent her back, but it's not her."
Elem Zeitser, a strange, sadistic gangster who's having an affair with Cohen's cousin Genia, is an admirer of Emerson and Emily Dickinson. Cohen's funny pal Dubi is a Beatles fanatic with keen insights about immigrant assimilation -- and about why some immigrants turn around and head back home. "Some melting pot, they say; they just melt you down until you turn into American. No culture. No nothing. Just this crazy religion where they believe in the Bible as fact like it's the telephone book."
The solution to the murder in Disturbed Earth is heartbreakingly plausible. And Nadelson's sublimely funny and disturbing final three words -- "She misses you" -- will leave readers eager for Artie Cohen installment number six.
Bruised and Battered
In some ways, The River House , by Margaret Leroy (Little, Brown, $23.95), reads like a suspense novel written by Richard Yates. Leroy handles marriage and domestic life with the same graceful, precise, rueful style as the late novelist did, though with a warmer, more hopeful intelligence.
Ginnie Holmes, 46, a suburban London therapist who works with abused children, is in a routine, sexless marriage to a semiotics professor. She sees her life with her self-absorbed husband and two fractious teenaged daughters as "domestic, anxious, enmeshed." She has lost the "shiny, hopefulness [she] used to have." When Ginnie meets Will Hampden, a married police detective similarly unhappy but committed to caring for his autistic son, she and Will fall into an affair in an abandoned boathouse by the Thames. Ginnie accepts the limitations of the relationship -- occasional tenderness and passion are enough -- and reminds herself that "a man who likes women a lot has liked a lot of women."
Then a young woman is found strangled by the river. Horrified, Ginnie realizes that a man she saw from the boathouse window dashing through the woods is probably the killer. It is the victim's husband, a known batterer whom the police suspect but can't charge without evidence. There's no way Ginnie can explain her presence in the boathouse, however, withot exposing her affair, risking her job, angering Will, and shattering the family she realizes she is bound up with morally and practically.
Leroy elucidates Ginnie's moral conundrum beautifully. Although there is never much doubt as to what Ginnie will do, it's how she does it that provides considerable suspense.
Field of Stoned Dreams
A Venom Beneath the Skin (Kate's Mystery Books/Justin, Charles, $24.95), Marcos M. Villatoro's neat, Hitchcockian thriller featuring FBI agent Romilia Chacón is mainly about vicious drug traffickers. But it also sheds light on the demand side of the U.S. illegal drug trade. Chacón is a widowed West L.A. soccer mom living uncomfortably among upper-middle-class women who stand on the sidelines at matches comparing notes on their lives of "multi-tasking." One afternoon, she reflects that "there was, within the radius of the three soccer fields we stood in, no doubt a good, I don't know, twelve thousand dollars' worth of coke, grass, meth, ice, heroin, all tucked in purses, pocketbooks, in folded plastic liners under baseball caps." These moms and their hubbies are why the drug trade exists.