MYSTERIES

In one of these stories, a cop wrestles with a case that transports him to his own past.

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Reviewed by Art Taylor
Sunday, July 15, 2007

IN THE WOODS By Tana French, Viking. 429 pp. $24.95

Decades-old crimes coming back to haunt the present -- it's hardly a unique theme in detective fiction. Think of Laura Lippman's and George Pelecanos's most recent books or Dennis Lehane's Mystic River or, further back, several of Ross Macdonald's novels dealing with what one critic called "the resurrected past." Now add to that distinguished list Tana French's ambitious and extraordinary first novel. And rank it high.

In the Woods follows Dublin Murder Squad detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the killing of 12-year-old Katy Devlin, her body curled atop an altar stone at an archaeological dig in nearby Knocknaree. On its own, the case would be difficult enough -- pedophilia? a ritual killing? or maybe a grim message for the dead girl's father, who led a controversial political initiative? -- but there's a further complication: Twenty years earlier, Detective Ryan's two closest friends (age 12 themselves) disappeared in the same wood, leaving Ryan as the sole survivor, T-shirt slashed, kneecaps bruised, blood in his shoes and no memory of what happened.

Resonance between the two cases gradually builds. Interviews are brimming with wider implications. Dark patterns emerge. The intensity of the primary investigation -- a cracking good police procedural, relying on up-to-date scientific methods -- is punctuated by Ryan's furtive, emotionally charged struggle to reconstruct his past and to deal with the mind's inherent shiftiness: "I had come to think of my memories as solid, shining little things, to be hunted out and treasured, and it was deeply unsettling to think that they might be fool's gold, tricky and fog-shaped and not at all what they seemed." The process tests his relationship with Cassie -- a fascinating partnership, explicitly not romantic but affectionate, endearing and finally heart-rending.

In the Woods is a long book, densely layered and meticulously imagined, and for more than 400 pages the question looms: Can the author bring these twinned storylines to a satisfying and unified conclusion? While she casts light on each crime, other aspects of the mysteries darken and deepen. Whether the ending succeeds will likely be debated, but French's decisions are unexpected and unnerving -- a bold close to a daring novel.

THE SCENT OF BLOOD By Raymond Miller, Toby. 220 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Raymond Miller understands the classic hardboiled detective novel: damsels in distress, tough-guy villains, antagonistic policemen and a little wisecracking to ease the occasional cracked rib. Even the characters in Miller's first novel recognize these common motifs, but they undermine them. "There's no self-respecting private eye in movieland or TV-land who can't fight off five or six men without breaking a sweat," comments Nathaniel Singer P.I., who then promptly gets thrashed. "How does it feel to be a cliché?" asks his comely assistant Kate, when Singer reaches into his drawer for a drink -- but, as she finds out, it's cream soda, not whiskey down there.

Singer, who wanted to be a poet or professor before turning P.I., describes himself as a "pro-choice, anti-prayer-in-the-public-schools, free-speech-loving Jew," and his current case seems to plunge him into politically charged territory as well. A pediatric surgeon at Sloan-Kettering has been killed in a hit-and-run, but while police have dismissed it as an accident, the widow suspects otherwise. The doctor's embryonic stem-cell research had earned him a consulting gig with Weatherall Pharmaceuticals but also death threats from the right-wing Party of God. Either organization is a prime candidate for the festering evil at work in the world.

The solution is ultimately less political than personal -- and more satisfying for it. Along the way, The Scent of Blood balances emotional distress, heated violence and philosophical quandaries, but still manages a breezy and light-hearted tone. Miller's having a grand time playing with the genre.

DAY OF THE DANDELION By Peter Pringle, Simon & Schuster. 306 pp. $25

The phrase "botanical thriller" may not set your pulse racing. And while middle-aged Arthur Hemmings, the hero of Day of the Dandelion, is compared to James Bond, it's tough to imagine 007 toiling away for Britain's Office of Food Security. But despite those marketing missteps and a title that shouts B-movie parody, Day of the Dandelion proves not just earnest but surprisingly enjoyable.

Oxford researchers have located a supergene that allows modified plants to clone themselves. Governments and corporations have been scrambling in a "furious international scientific race" to patent the gene and potentially gain control of the world's food supply. So when multimillion-dollar seeds are stolen and the Oxford researchers disappear, our botanist-by-day and superagent-by-night is called upon to sift through tangled layers of political and economic intrigue.

Peter Pringle, a journalist by trade, wrote Food Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto -- The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest in 2005, and his research grounds this novel with real-world urgency, even if he sometimes inserts the science awkwardly. Too often, Britain's Ag-Fish Minister blurts out clunky lead-ins such as, "No one has a clue what you're talking about. Tell them why this is so bloody important -- in English, Mr. Hemmings." The book also seems unsure whether it's a high-stakes espionage tale or a more sedate English cozy: In the heat of the international patent race, with dead bodies mounting and the bad guys literally crowding the door in Switzerland, Hemmings heads home for the weekend to attend a funeral, engage in some G-rated courting of an attractive neighbor and interview an aging spinster who'd shared picnics and poetry with one of the scientists. Hold tight back in Bern. Hemmings is almost done with his sponge cake and spot of tea.

IN SECRET SERVICE By Mitch Silver, Touchstone. 327 pp. $25

Though Amy Greenberg has spent her academic career studying illuminated texts of the Middle Ages, the latest manuscript to fall into her hands covers significantly more recent events. Ian Fleming's memoir, "Provenance," stashed by the author in a Dublin safe deposit box and inherited by the young Yale scholar, promises to reveal damning secrets about the British Royal Family and expose the face of evil in the world. As Amy explores the manuscript, dangers lurk around every corner, with competing factions eager to use the information for spurious political ends or else to bury it -- along with Amy.

In constructing that secret manuscript, Mitch Silver impressively overlays speculative scenarios atop actual historical events. Fleming's faux manuscript details myriad connections among King Edward VIII (later Duke of Windsor),Wallis Simpson, Winston Churchill, Rudolf Hess, "Fourth Man" Anthony Blunt and Fleming himself. As an added bonus, it discusses the sexual specialties or shortcomings of several historical figures too. Don't miss President Harding mistaking the "Wallis Grip" for a golf term. While building those connections occasionally proves laborious (too much exposition, too little drama), the novel's multi-layered conspiracies are well imagined, ultimately linking even Princess Di's accident to events a half-century earlier. The whole thing is enlivened by reproductions of newspaper clippings, photographs, torn letters, receipts and more -- some real, some not. Locating where fact bleeds into fiction is half the fun here.

Unfortunately, however, much of the time, Fleming's lost manuscript overshadows Amy and the present-day action, especially when our intrepid heroine's main goal in dodging the international assassins is to find just a little more time to read. ·

Art Taylor's mystery fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Ellery Queen, Mystery Scene and other magazines.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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