(Carolina K. Smith)
By Maureen Corrigan
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Mysteries and suspense novels survey the world with a bloodshot eye. Even in the most benign form of the genre -- the cozies -- bodies are forever popping up in gardens and libraries and other ordinarily soothing locales. Crusading sleuths may set things right, but the peace is only temporary -- especially in series fiction, where the detective is sure to trip over more corpses at the beginning of the next installment. In some of the new mysteries and suspense novels that follow, even momentary moral order is too utopian a vision to entertain.

The Third Weird Sister

Morag Joss has written a world-class creeper in Puccini's Ghosts (Delacorte, $22). Unrequited love, flattened artistic ambition, the passionate naiveté of adolescence -- these elements intertwine in Joss's novel, exerting a stranglehold on the main characters. This is not a novel for young readers; indeed, anyone under 30 should be prohibited from buying it and directed, instead, to the more upbeat sections of the bookstore (home improvement, New Age spirituality, the coffee bar). For the message of Joss's memory tale is that sometimes the stupid mistakes you make when you're very young do wreck things, forever. Sometimes there is no second chance, no scurrying back to trod the path not taken.

When Puccini's Ghosts opens, Lila du Cann, an aging opera singer, has returned to her childhood home of Burnhead -- a soggy village on the Scottish coast -- to pack things up after the death of her father. In conversations with the neighbors, Lila seems overly impressed with her own importance. (She's only a chorus singer, after all, and what's with that last name change -- from "Duncan" to du Cann?) Alone every day in the house, sorting through yellowing newspapers and rotting clothes, she keeps returning, obsessively, to the summer of 1960. In a parallel, present-tense narrative, we readers are taken back to that summer when Lila is 15 and her mother (herself, a thwarted opera singer) and father are locked in a grim marriage. Relief arrives in the form of her mother's brother, George, a music teacher from London who decides to stage an amateur production of Puccini's opera "Turandot," which is about, among other things, the fatal consequences of loving unwisely. A close, charismatic friend of George's is imported from London to sing the part of the romantic hero, and, by opening night, close to 200 of Burnhead's bored citizens are involved in this fateful production where, when the curtain rises, the truth will out.

Joss is such a spellbinding writer that she makes readers feel walled up in the gray small rooms of Lila's childhood and the limited options of the village. As well as psychological depth, there's also lots of skewed humor in Puccini's Ghost . Take, for instance, the scene where Lila's mother, in a fit of rage, finds a can of red paint and begins painting a curse word about her husband on the garage for all the neighbors to see. Thinking quickly when a nosy friend arrives on the scene, Lila claims that "BAST ---" actually stands for the "Burnhead Association for Singing Turandot, " and, so, a tragedy is set in motion.

For her mastery of mood, her complex storylines and her shrewd appreciation of the frail boundaries that divide the sane from the mad, Morag Joss has been compared to those other two premiere weird sisters in crime, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Minette Walters. Such compliments are tossed about all too lightly in the publishing world, but this one is so justified that it seems like an understatement.

A Thriller in Frantic Mode

Readers don't turn to Brad Meltzer's suspense stories for psychological insight or brooding atmosphere. Insider knowledge of everyday life in politics, rock-'em sock-'em action and conspiracy tales that begin tamely enough and vault into the realm of breathless improbability are Meltzer's signature strengths. Squarely in this tradition, his latest outing, The Book of Fate (Warner, $25.99), is sure to please those readers who like to store up stockpiles of cynicism about the private lives of their elected officials.

The Book of Fate opens with a scene that would be the climax of a lesser suspense tale: a 4th of July assassination attempt on the president of the United States before 200,000 NASCAR fans at the Daytona speedway. The president's closest friend, Ron Boyle, is gunned down; a young aide to the president, Wes Holloway, escapes with his life but suffers permanent facial disfigurement. Fast forward eight years. Doggedly loyal to the now former president, who keeps him on staff despite his ruined face, Wes is running interference for his boss on a junket to Malaysia when he encounters a ghost: There's Ron Boyle -- against all logic -- rooting around in the former president's dressing room! What follows gives the paranoid worldview of The Da Vinci Code a run for its money.

Ancient Masonic plots to control the country; scrap paper bearing presidential doodles that have the power to destroy lives; crossword puzzles whose sinister meaning becomes all too clear -- all this and even Thomas Jefferson get tossed into this suspicious stew. The only instances when Meltzer's frantic storyline drags are the short chapters where his psychotic villain (as opposed to all the rest of the garden-variety villains scuttling around in this plot) takes over the narration. A little of this first-person intimacy with a nutcase who's murdered his own father and drives I-95 to Florida in the company of a gassy corpse goes a very, very long way. The nice thing, though, about Meltzer's overblown suspense stories is that they usually end on an upbeat note: Deceit and bloodshed may abound, but the love of a pretty woman driving a Mustang does a lot to make things better. Temporarily.

Murder in a Bleak Climate

Steve Hamilton's latest Alex McKnight mystery, A Stolen Season (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur, $22.95) preaches the world-weary wisdom of an old saw: No good deed goes unpunished. When the novel opens, McKnight (who, as series fans know, is an ex-cop working as a private detective in Michigan's Upper Peninsula) is gloomy about the prospect of keeping alive his long-distance relationship with Canadian policewoman Natalie Reynaud. He and some friends are shivering through an atypically frigid 4th of July fireworks celebration on the shores of Lake Superior's Waishkey Bay when, through the darkness and fog, they spot an antique boat slam into a line of old railroad pilings. McKnight and his pals jump into a motorboat and speed to save three guys in the boat who are drowning in lake water and beer. For their pains, the rescuers will be verbally harassed, beaten up and almost killed by the near-victims on the sinking boat. Go figure.

That's precisely what McKnight decides to do. Meanwhile, Natalie, who's involved in an undercover sting operation, brings her troubles home to McKnight with terrible consequences. Given its often jaunty dialogue and lovely nature descriptions, A Stolen Season is one of those mysteries that lull readers into a sense of security, but nothing is certain here. At the very end of this extreme tale, a dazed McKnight comments on the Ojibwa Indian word "dagwaging," which can refer to either the season of balmy Indian summer or to chilly fall. McKnight says he has to live "with the dagwaging I'd been dealt. Then [get] through another long winter so I can see how the world looks when springtime comes again." That minimalist statement is what counts as optimism in McKnight's stark universe.

Death on the Fast Track

Dick Francis is back in the saddle with a new Sid Halley novel! Given that cheerful news, it almost doesn't matter whether the novel, Under Orders (Putnam, $25.95), is any good or not. (It's okay.) Lots of readers worried that after the death of his wife a few years ago, the aging Francis would give up writing altogether. But as Halley or any number of Francis's other noble heroes might say, "a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins." It appears that Francis hasn't quit yet.

Under Orders features Halley once again risking the use of his one working arm as he tries to solve the murder of a jockey, as well as the apparent suicide of a trainer who worked with that jockey's racehorse. Internet betting fraud also plays into the plot as does a special wine cork remover that Francis, rather flatfootedly, shoves under our readerly noses. No matter. It's great to be in Halley's debonair company again, and by the end of this story he's rewarded with the love of a good woman and the gratitude of vulnerable racehorses everywhere. Sometimes, even in the world of mystery and suspense literature, there comes a happy ending that looks as if it will stick. ยท

Maureen Corrigan is the book reviewer for the NPR program Fresh Air and the author of a literary memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading."

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