By Richard Lipez
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Murder Among the Throwaways

Nobody is funnier or more acute than Robert Eversz on the American culture of celebrity as it is reverently observed and marketed in the city of Los Angeles. The former Angeleno -- he mostly lives in Prague now -- is back to work his tough love on L.A. in Zero to the Bone (Simon & Schuster, $24), his fifth mystery featuring shrewd, mouthy, punk paparazzo Nina Zero.

Zero, an ex-con and parolee who was born Mary Baker, still does bread-and-butter work for Scandal Times, but she has moved up, too, to "Cindy Sherman meets Weege" -- staged photography that's admired by "a D-list Hollywood arts crowd." After her first gallery opening, someone sends Zero an S&M snuff film, and her young model Christine goes missing and seems to have been the victim.

Eversz writes with an aching keenness about America's throwaway young people, the physically and emotionally dispossessed who end up on city streets or working for outfits like Sweet Lashes, an L.A. S&M phone-sex service. Zero's own childhood was abusive, so she has struggled to keep kids like Christine safe. Complicating Zero's efforts here are a sexy cop whose motives are murky and Zero's violent, semi-repentant father. Growing up with him, she learned such useful life skills as how to watch people, gauge their moods and "throw a killer left hook."

Eversz is powerfully ambivalent about Los Angeles, in one place launching into a hymn to the city's scorned mini-malls as "thriving shrines to the small businessman" in an urban landscape "increasingly blenderized by corporate franchises." But he is positively scathing about a place that harbors crackpot therapists by the thousands, like the past-life-regression guru James Rakaan, author of the bestseller "You're Not Crazy, You Really Are Napoleon: How to Unleash the Power of Your Past Lives." Eversz is harsh, too, on a criminal justice system he portrays as dicey at best, rotten at worst. That system does Zero a terrible injustice in Zero to the Bone , leaving you wondering how she is going to make it to the next entry in a mystery series that maintains an unparalleled level of suspense even between books.

Grim Galway

An even bleaker vision is that of Ken Bruen, whose ex-cop Jack Taylor series is grade-A Galway noir. You can practically slice the Irish fatalism with a broken Guinness bottle in The Dramatist (St. Martin's Minotaur, $22.95), which is redeemed from its near hopelessness by an appealing, Simenon-like economy and by a protagonist who is as wonderfully besotted with the English language as he is with his five cigarettes a day.

Off the booze and coke because his dealer is in jail, Taylor goes after a killer who shoves his young victims down flights of stairs and then plants copies of the works of John Millington Synge under their broken bodies. Is this Irish, or what? Further complicating Taylor's life is an old flame, Ann Henderson, who shows up to flaunt her psychic and actual bruises and then sets Taylor up for a savage beating by her abusive cop husband. There are vigilantes on the loose, too, who castrate a man who may or may not have molested a schoolgirl. This is not the Galway of the Irish Tourist Board, yet with Bruen doing the describing, you can't take your eyes off it.

The solution to the crime is as psychologically abstruse as it is believable in a land where literature is so integral to even the meanest lives. Bruen also provides an insightful tour of a fast-changing Ireland, one where "priests were so gun-shy they had to keep the profile lower than a wet Monday novena. With the deluge of scandals, the clergy no longer expected the respect of the people; they simply wanted to avoid lynch mobs."

Death Among the Café Crowd

The solution to a locked-room mystery is rarely as clever as you want it to be, and that holds true for Frank Tallis's A Death in Vienna (Grove, $22). But this first in a planned series is a winner for its smart and flavorsome fin-de-siècle portrait of the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and for introducing Max Liebermann, a young physician who is feverish with the possibilities of the new science of psychoanalysis.

The homicide victim is Charlotte Lowenstein, a famous Viennese medium, shot dead with no trace of a bullet and discovered in her séance room, locked from the inside. The gullibility of Viennese café society in 1902 is striking -- many denizens accept a supernatural explanation for the crime -- even as modern psychology is blossoming under Freud and his disciples. Fewer and fewer professionals continue to believe, for instance, that "women are uniquely vulnerable to hysteria on account of their having a wandering womb." The mild and rational Liebermann helps police inspector Oskar Rheinhardt navigate a maze of ignorance, retrograde politics and anti-Semitism to solve the mystery. Only his fiancée, Clara, can confuse Liebermann; we sense there is trouble ahead for the relationship when she accompanies him to a Klimt exhibition and snickers at the art.

A Judge With a Secret

It's no fun watching a favorite author skid off the rails, as happens with Lisa Scottoline's Dirty Blonde (HarperCollins, $25.95). In her 13th book, Scottoline abandons the all-girl gang at the Bennie Rosato Philadelphia law firm and introduces a new protagonist, newly sworn-in Federal District Judge Cate Fante. The cheerfully confident Fante is so weirdly unfathomable that halfway through the story I began to chortle instead of worry about her fate -- not what Scottoline had in mind.

Fante must preside over a trial in which the plaintiff is a local assistant DA who claims that a television producer stole his idea for a lawyer drama series set in Philly. But the scummy producer has had somebody following Fante for six months, recording her every move as research for another series he's planning, one about a female judge. Too bad for Fante: There's now a record of her impulsively picking up goonish guys, many of them felons, in seedy bars for quick sex. She sees this as a feminist issue -- guys do it all the time. Such a practice, however, is going to get any judge in trouble, and Fante comes across as borderline delusional. She salvages her job and her reputation by solving a murder, but the sudden turnaround isn't convincing.

Stringing Along

Despite a dearth of surprises and a hokey final showdown in an Italian graveyard -- it's like "The Hardy Boys in Cremona" -- Paul Adam's The Rainaldi Quartet (Thomas Dunne, $23.95) is well worth reading for its musical lore, especially on violin-making. It features luthier (violin-maker) Gianni Castiglione helping the police solve the murder of his colleague and pal Tomaso Rainaldi.

The crime involves the quest for a perfect lost Stradivarius, a Holy Grail of violin collectors. We learn that many Italian violin- makers were and are forgers, and that "so many violins were forged in the nineteenth century that it was a veritable industry, employing hundreds of luthiers." We're told, too, that Richard Wagner partisans spread the false rumor that Brahms harpooned stray cats from his study window, and that Berlioz described an orchestra pit as a "black hollow filled with wretches blowing and scraping." It's not a pretty manufacturing process for so refined a product. ·

Richard Lipez writes mysteries under the name Richard Stevenson.

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