Mysteries

Reviewed by Richard Lipez
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Do mystery writers speak with distinctively national voices? More often than not they do, at least if this pleasing sampling of crime fiction from Switzerland, China, the United States and Great Britain is any guide.

The Pledge

By Friedrich Dürrenmatt | Univ. of Chicago. 172 pp. | Paperback, $13

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman & Suspicion

By Friedrich Dürrenmatt | Univ. of Chicago. 209 pp. | Paperback, $15

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) was best known as the author of clever, morally inquisitive plays such as "The Visit" and "The Physicists." In the early 1950s he also wrote three short, spellbinding mystery novels, which the University of Chicago Press has reissued in paperback with new translations from the German by Joel Agee: The Pledge and The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman & Suspicion. The latter includes a thoughtful foreword by Sven Birkerts, who praises Dürrenmatt's talent as a captivating entertainer who could also "play through complex moral issues with a speed-chess decisiveness and inexorability." Dürrenmatt was Swiss and sounds it. He is sober, formal, precise and, when it suits him, to the point. He is droll about his fellow countrymen. In Suspicion, Police Inspector Barlach, the cranky, seriously ill protagonist, "was ordinarily not very fond of Zürich; four hundred thousand Swiss in one spot seemed a little excessive. . . ." In The Judge and His Hangman, Barlach gets into a cat-and-mouse game with a nihilist he enjoyed arguing with decades earlier in Istanbul. The man has reappeared to taunt Barlach with what may be a perfect -- and perfectly outrageous -- moral crime. Indeed, moral outrage fascinates Dürrenmatt, whether it's that of a World War II death camp physician who performed surgery without anesthetic on "volunteers" trying to avoid the ovens, or in the sociopathy of a man compelled to slit the throats of schoolchildren in an Alpine village.

Dürrenmatt's policemen -- the cancer-stricken Barlach and an emotionally stunted old dick known as "Dead-end Matthai" in The Pledge -- are obsessed with deciphering the origins of evil and stamping it out. They have such a hard time because on Dürrenmatt's shifting human landscape moral certainty keeps doubling back on itself, as when a detective recklessly uses a little girl as bait to catch a killer who has driven the cop nearly crazy.

These are slender tales. But they have the weight and texture of classics. Mystery readers should be grateful to the University of Chicago Press for bringing these gems back to life.

A Case of Two Cities

By Qiu Xiaolong | St. Martin's. 307 pp. | $24.95

Though it's still satisfying, the denouement of Qiu Xiaolong's dark, gorgeous A Case of Two Cities seems to suggest that, in the most honest mystery stories, not all the loose ends can ever be tied up, or have to be. I don't know if this is a Confucian approach to crime fiction, but in this fourth of the esteemed Inspector Chen police procedurals set in Shanghai, it all feels authentically Chinese and it works like a charm.

The second city of the title is St. Louis, Mo., where the Chinese-born author now lives. It is also where Inspector Chen Cao follows a former party muckety-muck so spectacularly rotten that Chen is named an "emperor's special envoy" to break up a smuggling operation apparently larger than some national economies.

The corruption ring is an embarrassment even in what sometimes seems to be an entire nation of Duke Cunninghams. This is the new China, where, according to one of the regime's many Chinese critics, "Communism echoes only in nostalgic songs. It's capitalism that's practiced here -- with the Communist Party sitting on top, sucking a red lollipop." While his mind is supple and his ego sturdy, Chen is frequently no match for a system that can turn principled men and women into insignificant specks. When Chen declines a bribe, an implicit threat is made against his elderly mother. There's something especially brave and noble about a cop who perseveres under these circumstances. Readers who love China will be heartened, as this gritty, suspenseful tale unfolds, to discover that Inspector Chen is far from alone in his quest to build a humane Chinese society.

Bone Valley

By Claire Matturro | Morrow. 316 pp. | $23.95

Only marginally less frightening than capitalism in China is capitalism in Florida, the setting for Claire Matturro's lighthearted diatribes against the same polluters and crooked developers that Carl Hiassen skewers triumphantly in fiction, though with little apparent effect on real life.


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