Mysteries
A murder victim needs a champion, and even a spy needs a friend.

By Rosemary Herbert
Sunday, October 29, 2006

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Too Kind for His Own Good

Elizabeth George's profoundly moving new novel, What Came Before He Shot Her (HarperCollins, $26.95), seems destined to be remembered as the ultimate whydunit. The book stands on its own as an absorbing chronicle of a boy's hard-knocks life in inner-city London. But it will also satisfy fans of her series novels by detailing what led to the apparently random murder of a beloved character in her last book, With No One as Witness .

From the very first sentence, "Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride," George tells a story with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. It centers on a boy whose innate goodness cannot bring him unscathed through desperate circumstances -- whose very good-heartedness steers him toward disaster.

George locates the "why" of "whydunit" not only in his family members' failure to help him thrive but also in his own loyalty to them. The objects of Joel's affection include his sister, Ness, a surly adolescent whose promiscuity has been spurred by abuse; his beloved younger brother, Toby, a child who clings to things, such as a swimming tube that he wears around his belly no matter what the season; a mentally disturbed mum who is confined to an asylum; and a well-meaning aunt whose modest dreams are severely compromised when the children's grandmother abandons them to the aunt's care.

By selecting telling details about her characters' lives in inner-city London, by delivering utterly readable and believable dialogue, and by keeping Joel's dilemmas at the heart of this work, George makes one feel invested in the outcome. The result is nothing short of absorbing. Even without her long-time sleuths, Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers, George is in top form here.

Faith-Based Murder

Another troubled youth -- a loner called Rudd -- spirals into disaster in The Open Curtain (Coffee House; paperback, $14.95), Brian Evenson's shocking novel of murder and madness set partly in the inner sanctum of a Mormon temple. In an afterword, Everson invites the suggestion that he is a man with a mission: to show that the Mormon religion has long been linked to violence. He even admits having asked to be excommunicated after some Mormons objected to his first book, Altmann's Tongue . If this is axe-grinding, it produces scintillating sparks. After leading off with some leaden spelling-out of his protagonist's state of mind, Evenson becomes convincing when he begins to depict a fatherless boy named Rudd descending into madness.The boy moves rigidly through his days until two life-changing events occur: He discovers he has a half-brother, and, while working on a school assignment, he happens upon documents about a 1902 murder and blood sacrifice perpetrated by Brigham Young's grandson.

Obsessed with both discoveries, Rudd finds himself on the road to committing murder himself. In doing so, he suffers injuries, and these lead to his being considered one of the victims. Rudd plays along, and as the action progresses, Evenson compellingly spells out what it means to be a truly lost soul.

In the Shadow of the Dear Leader

The tenebrous position of a security agent, one Inspector O, in a totalitarian society forms the emotional landscape of James Church's captivating debut novel, A Corpse in the Koryo (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95). Written under a pseudonym by a former Western intelligence officer, the thriller features two interwoven narratives. One is a conversation between an Irish intelligence officer and O, who is a North Korean official. O himself is the other narrator, and, considering how many words he must mince in his daily work, he turns out to be surprisingly reliable.

A loner by inclination and necessity, O has one meaningful partnership in his life, the one with his superior officer, Pak. Each brings to his work integrity and dedication to the other's well-being. Church lets us know how rare these qualities are in a world where survival depends on being inscrutable, even to those with whom one works closely. Their duties become more dangerous after a murder occurs in a hotel, The Koryo, and a man called Kang ominously enters the story.

Church uses his years of intelligence work to excellent advantage here, delivering one duplicitous plot twist after another. Though often understated, the author's affection for the landscape and people of Korea is abundantly evident. It may be his eye for the telling detail that serves him best, even in portraying minor characters, such as a young traffic policeman on his beat: "He was very tall and moved like a stork in a rice paddy, with an odd, deliberate majesty." That is how this novel moves, too. Right down to its stunning conclusion.

The Scent of Fear

Gianrico Carofiglio, a bestselling author and an anti-Mafia lawyer in Italy, also builds on his own work experience to give A Walk in the Dark (Bitter Lemon; paperback, $14.95; translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis), his Italian-style noir novel, plenty of punch. It's a legal procedural centered on the work of a lawyer, Guido Guerrieri. In a decision that seems destined to destroy his career, Guerrieri is moved by a woman's account of being stalked and assaulted to prosecute the son of a powerful judge.

Carofiglio is as adept at describing the details of Guerrieri's daily life as he is at detailing Italian courtroom procedure. While a hero such as Guerrieri -- sensitive, a good cook -- may be familiar (see Robert B. Parker's Spenser and numerous imitations), the Italian setting and the legal details are novel and fascinating. And Guerrieri's keen nose for food and scents that most of us hardly notice in daily living also helps him as a detective: He can smell people's fear.

In addition, one of his helpmates, Sister Claudia, is a true original: a bruiser of a nun who dons jeans rather than a habit and can out-box an opponent literally blindfolded. It's clear she will stop at nothing to protect the women in her care from further victimization. ยท

Rosemary Herbert is co-editor, with Tony Hillerman, of "A New Omnibus of Crime."

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