Death and Dante's "Inferno"
In Donna Leon's Through a Glass, Darkly (Atlantic Monthly, $23) the vibrantly rendered city of Venice (where the author lives) is home to clever commisario Guido Brunetti and his literature professor wife, Paola. The rapport between this married couple is finely tuned: Guido knows something is bothering Paola whenever she hasn't got a book propped up while she is eating. Their believable home-life supports the developing investigation well.
The heat is on in a Murano glass factory where, a good third of the way through the book, a night-watchman is found banged over the head, stinking of feces and lying, horribly desiccated, in front of an open furnace. The factory belongs to explosively tempered Signor De Cal, who is the most obvious suspect. So, coffee-and-tea-sipping Brunetti strolls into action.
Why would anyone do in the watchman, who has underlined sections of Dante's Inferno in an old school book? Leon's gentle pace allows conversation and atmosphere to develop so full and rounded that you can taste the coffee and smell the flowers by means of which romantic Brunetti measures the seasons. It is so enjoyable roaming Venice with him -- mulling things over, coming up against dead ends -- that the outcome is a genuine surprise. Further, you'll want to catch the first plane over there.
Speeding Toward a Solution
Oddball but brilliant, Malicious Intent (Harper; paperback, $13.95) by first-time Australian author Kathryn Fox is set in the world of forensic medicine. Fox's tough protagonist, Anya Crichton, works as a freelance forensic scientist. A divorced mother with a young son she adores, Crichton finds herself trying to solve a spate of what appear to be suicides and an honor-killing. She soon believes they are really serial murders. The author is a doctor, and there is a lot of medical knowledge on display in this daring story. The clue that tips Crichton off -- genital herpes -- is graphically prominent, and hats off to Fox for broaching a rarely discussed (but, as she points out, quite common) infection with such authoritative gusto.
Potential love-interest is provided by brilliant, well-dressed psychiatrist Vaughan Hunter, who explains to Anya why sprinters crouch: "You accelerate faster than if you start standing upright. In the crouched position your body is so close to being off balance, it's easier to move forward. Take someone out of their comfort zone and they can do things they never imagined." This insight into human behavior proves key to Crichton and Hunter's relationship -- and the crime. If you like a tale written like a violent film, this fast-paced novel will do the job.
In Ruth Birmingham's Feet of Clay (Thomas Dunne, $23.95), Sunny Childs, a private investigator, is a modern, mildly quirky young woman who wears a silver ring on her thumb. But that slight sartorial rebellion is nothing compared with her punky cousin, Lee-Lee, a tattooed filmmaker who gets arrested in the hick town of Flournoy, Ga. -- ostensibly for speeding, resisting arrest and possessing drugs. Actually, she was trying to make a film about a convict named Dale Weedlow, who is set to fry in 24 hours for the vicious murder of two young women years before. The clock ticks -- and Sunny, smelling a whole bag of rats, rushes to Lee-Lee's aid.
The dead women had been found eviscerated and dangling in the deserted warehouse of an old clay pit. It is obvious that Weedlow was framed, and even more clear that a lot of covering-up is going on. But why? And by whom? The horror of the murders fades behind the novel's wry, noir style. Sunny is hampered by small-town bigotry, but she stays focused. With help from a philosophy-reading lawyer and hindrance from a cast of delightfully unbelievable characters, she races to find the unexpected killer.
Berlin stars in City of Shadows (William Morrow, $24.95), by Ariana Franklin. Franklin is married to top British film critic Barry Norman, and this intelligent book reads very visually. Beginning in the 1920s, the story sports colorful settings such as the Pink Parasol Cabaret, owned by shady, flamboyant "Prince Nick." There is also Nick's secretary, the badly scarred, articulate heroine named Esther Solomonova, who is beautiful on one side, hideous on the other. Nick rescues a woman from a mental hospital who claims to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia; she's being pursued by a big man who mysteriously appears every six weeks and tries to slaughter her.
Enter Inspector Schmidt. Against the smoke of escalating Nazi brutality, Schmidt tries to resolve the riddle of the six-week assassin, while Berlin's impending nightmare closes around him and Solomonova. Like Gorky Park , another story big on romance and location, there is a lot to enjoy in this well-researched, atmospheric novel. ·
Philippa Stockley is the author of the novels "A Factory of Cunning" and "The Edge of Pleasure."