Murder served up hot from ancient Rome to modern Japan.

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, March 11, 2007

THE WATER THIEFBy Ben Pastor Thomas Dunne. 350 pp. $24.95

Ben Pastor's The Water Thief is one of those books that undermine the categories of fiction. It has all the earmarks of a mystery: a disputed death in the past, present-day murders (the book's "present," that is: the 4th century), an investigating hero and a surprise villain. But Pastor has taken such pains to conjure up Italy and Egypt back then, to take the temperature of the Roman Empire, to depict local officials coping with the challenges posed by the spread of Christianity, that the result is far richer than the traditional whodunit.

It might make more sense to think of The Water Thief as a riff on a classic of world literature, Marguerite Yourçenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. For Pastor's puzzle is also a pivotal incident for Yourçenar: the death of the Emperor Hadrian's male lover, the beautiful Antinous. According to the historians, he drowned in the Nile in the 2nd century. In Yourçenar's retelling, he committed suicide because he couldn't bear the thought of aging -- and likely losing pride of place to a younger favorite. In Pastor's version, Antinous may have been murdered; to discover how and why is the mission on which Aelius Spartianus, an ex-military man, has been sent by the current emperor, Diocletian, who is eager to clear up the mystery involving his predecessor.

Some passages in The Water Thief are lovely. ("Soon, pouring out from under trees, tombs, and isolated farms like a liquid, shadows began to lengthen.") Others are clumsy. But throughout the novel, Pastor, like Robert Harris in last year's Imperium, persuasively evokes an ancient world that is both strange and strikingly like our own, and the plot works shrewd variations on the known facts.

THE HUNTERBy Asa Nonami Translated from the Japanese By Juliet Winters Carpenter Kodansha. 269 pp. $24.95

Most mystery writers try to surprise the reader at the end. In her absorbing The Hunter, Asa Nonami springs her biggest shock at the start: A man enters a Tokyo restaurant, sits down and bursts into flames. He dies, the restaurant is destroyed in the ensuing blaze, and the shops overhead are gutted.

The case goes to Takako Otomichi, a divorced former member of the city's motorcycle patrol, and her new partner, a middle-aged detective whose stiff gait and unabashed misogyny lead her to call him "the emperor penguin" behind his back. As if dining-patron flambé weren't enough, the case soon adds another wild element: The deceased had teeth marks on one leg, and other corpses are found similarly marked. Forensic analysis shows that these impressions were left by a wolf-dog, a hybrid rare in Japan but not unknown.

For all its jolt quotient, The Hunter may be most appealing when it simply introduces us to Japanese mores. We learn, for example, that a crucial aspect of a high-profile criminal case is naming it. "This name, a virtual signboard and doorplate for the investigation headquarters," Nonami writes, "would be released to all [police] stations and the media, and would be retained for posterity in police files, so it needed to have a certain cachet." Fortunately, new information emerges early enough to earn this case a lulu: "The Tachikawa Timed Combustion Belt Homicide Case."

WILD INDIGOBy Sandi Ault Berkley Prime Crime. 304 pp. $23.95

The protagonist of this first novel has taken the feral-pet fixation to its logical conclusion. Bureau of Land Management agent Jamaica Wild's best friend is not a wolf-dog but an out-and-out wolf. Wild adores Mountain, as the wolf is called; she got him as a pup, after the other members of his pack were killed. Having suffered such a wrenching loss, the animal hates to be left alone. Wild, who works in northern New Mexico, tries not to leave Mountain for long periods because when she does, he usually rips about half her belongings to shreds, urinates and defecates on the floor, then pouts when she returns.

Nonetheless, Mountain is an appealing "character": beautiful, brave, loyal. Whenever he and Wild are interacting, Wild Indigo crackles with life and novelty. Not so much, though, when the mystery takes center stage. It has to do with an Indian man whom Wild saw get trampled by buffaloes -- a straightforward, if unusual, death, except for the man's odd behavior before the first buffalo struck, which suggests that someone may have drugged him and placed him in harm's way. Unfortunately, this intriguing start does not live up to its promise.

In the course of solving the crime, Wild is initiated into various tribal rituals, which would be more interesting if the author hadn't confessed in her prefatory note that she has created her own "blending" of numerous traditions. It's hard to care about, say, the great bake-a-thon that goes on for several pages when it could belong to any of several unnamed "Pueblo cultures" or to none of them. Novel readers are happy to pick up lore about almost anything, and Indian cultures are inherently fascinating, but why not give us the real thing, as Tony Hillerman does so well in his Navajo mysteries?

THE SUSPECTBy John Lescroart Dutton. 389 pp. $26.95

John Lescroart has become a big gun (as it were) among thriller-writers, but judging from The Suspect, I'm not sure why.

It's the story of two solo campers at the same Sierra Nevada lake who later become lawyer and client in San Francisco: Gina Roake, who finds herself practicing criminal law despite her inexperience in that complex field; and Stuart Gorman, outdoor columnist for a local newspaper, who is accused of murdering his physician/inventor wife while she was performing a sacred California ritual: soaking in a hot tub.

Lescroart spins his plot in workmanlike fashion, but he's no Agatha Christie; you will have a pretty good idea who dunit about halfway through. Nor do most of his characters break free from their molds: smug police pathologist, pompous CEO, screwed-up dropout daughter, etc.

One more complaint: In a novel featuring an outdoor writer, it's jarring when Gina commits a wilderness faux pas. Conscientious campers do not take their dirty dishes "down to the lake to wash them." That's asking for a polluted body of water. Instead, do your dishes well away from lakes and streams. Oh, and use biodegradable soap.

THE PERFECT FAKEBy Barbara Parker Dutton. 341 pp. $25.95

There's a lot going on in Barbara Parker's The Perfect Fake. Several people die violent deaths in Florida; a Renaissance-era map is ruined by bullet holes and blood from one of the victims, who was holding it when shot to death; an ex-con who works as a graphic artist is hired to make a perfect copy of said map; the wife of the man who hired the ex-con offers him money not to duplicate the map; most of the cast crosses the Atlantic Ocean; gangsters ship arms illegally; cars are forced off European highways; necks are broken. After a while, I began to fear that the book might burst into flames from sheer overheatedness, rather like that poor timed-combustion-belt guy in The Hunter.

Somehow Parker, a former prosecutor in Dade County, keeps her centrifugal material under control. Even so, this novel demands that you hold on to your seat with both hands. How, then, will you turn the pages? Not to worry, they pretty much do it themselves. ·

Dennis Drabelle is the mysteries editor

of Book World.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company