Mysteries

Murder most foul, in crime scenes spanning the globe.

Reviewed by Richard Lipez
Sunday, August 5, 2007

THE INDIAN BRIDE
By Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian
By Charlotte Barslund. Harcourt. 297 pp. $23

My mother-in-law always reads the last page of a mystery first. This is unusual. Most mystery readers find the fear and apprehension that comes with artfully delayed resolution perversely enjoyable, even thrilling. But The Indian Bride, a new mystery out of Norway -- stolid, pretty, unexciting Norway -- is so heart-stoppingly suspenseful that it was all I could do to keep myself from catapulting instantly to the bang-up final chapter.

This terrific book by Karin Fossum is the fourth in a series featuring canny but fallible, tender-hearted but pragmatic, always deliberate Inspector Konrad Sejer. Sejer works in comfortable tandem with the younger detective Jacob Skarre, and each tries, not always successfully, to keep the other from wandering astray in a complex investigation. They make such an agreeably civilized pair that if I had to be a crime victim and could choose the locale, I would pick Norway.

Part of the remarkable emotional power of The Indian Bride comes from the lovingly drawn humanity of the victims. In the village of Elvestad, unmarried 50-year-old tractor salesman Gunder Jomann decides one day he wants a wife to "cherish and adore." Gentle-natured but peculiar, like one of Garrison Keillor's Norwegian bachelor farmers, Jomann does not seek a Norwegian wife because "Norwegian women didn't want to be adored." He may have picked up that idea from his fretful and casually manipulative sister Marie. Inspired by a picture book called People of All Nations, Jomann impulsively heads for Mumbai and stuns everybody at home by quickly marrying a lonely waitress, Poona Bai, the Indian bride of the title, who basks in Jomann's adoration -- until she is savagely beaten to death hours after arriving in Elvestad, apparently by a villager.

Since it is just too ghastly to imagine that one of their own committed the atrocity, the villagers withhold information from Sejer. He tells his cancer-ridden dog, Kollberg, off whom he bounces ideas, "We're not talking about evil here, but the good in people that stops them from saying what they know." When a young woman does implicate a vain and troubled village weight lifter, she is ostracized and then becomes dangerously obsessed with detective Skarre. Fossum is a master at probing the plague of guilt that infects a community in which just about everyone has something they think they need to hide -- everyone, that is, except the cunning psychopathic killer.

HARD MAN
By Allan Guthrie
Harcourt. 268 pp. $23

There's also an abundance of violence in Allan Guthrie's farcically scary Hard Man, but it's mostly cartoonish, like a Buster Keaton movie with bloodshed. While Americans invented hard-boiled crime fiction, the Brits seem to take to it as naturally as they do to blood sausage and marmite. Set in Edinburgh, Hard Man adds a Scottish flavor to the lurid proceedings.

The novel's opening lines get right to the point, atmospherically speaking: "Another hot day in July. That was four in a row. Pretty good for Scotland. Not so good for the corpse in the boot."

The unfortunate body in the trunk is that of Louis, the household mutt at the Baxters, a family of genial thugs. Louis has apparently been murdered by a sicko named Wallace, who discovered that he is not the father of 16-year-old May Baxter's unborn child. One of the Baxter clan tricks brooding ex-con Pearce into protecting May by kidnapping his dog. Since everybody involved lies as naturally as they sock people in the eye, multiple misunderstandings lead to grisly mayhem, including one actual crucifixion.

Revolting? Well, yes. But Guthrie is such a witty and inventive stylist that once you get into Hard Man you grit your teeth and put up with a lot to enjoy the constant flow of lines such as "Jacob couldn't help feeling sorry for his nephew, even if he was a complete animal. Blood was thicker than disgust." And then there's poor May, regretful that she ever got mixed up with murderous Wallace. She just "felt [expletive] filthy, and not in a good way."

SECRET ASSET
By Stella Rimington
Knopf. 319 pp. $24.95

A kinder, gentler Britain than the one in Hard Man can be found in Stella Rimington's pretty good spy thriller Secret Asset. Rimington actually ran MI5, the British spy agency, for four years in the 1990s, and there's plenty of procedural verisimilitude here. Too much authenticity can be a hindrance in this type of crime fiction, however. While real-life investigations can be plodding, a ticking-bomb thriller that just ambles along is frustrating. Secret Asset eventually does get up a head of steam, though. And its subplot involving a suspected IRA mole inside British intelligence dovetails convincingly with the main plot in which Middle Eastern terrorists scheme to blow up a beloved British institution.

Remember Deep Throat's Watergate-era advice to follow the money? In Secret Asset, it is plucky, methodical agent Liz Carlyle's realization that she must "follow the hate" that pays off. Experience and intuition help prevent a disaster, as do gadgets like Britain's omnipresent closed-circuit TV cameras. But shoe-leather is the most effective technology here. A kind of anti-Robert Ludlum, Rimington seems to be making the case that human intelligence and good police work -- more than derring-do or technological marvels or the deployment of vast armies -- stymie terrorists and keep us safe.

A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART
By Timothy Hallinan
Morrow. 328 pp. $24.95

The nations of Southeast Asia all claim to be making headway in halting child sex trafficking -- last winter I saw a billboard on the side of a Cambodian bus urging people to turn in predators -- but these governments aren't doing enough to reduce the desperate poverty that leads some parents to sell their children. Timothy Hallinan's A Nail Through the Heart is set two months after the devastating 2004 tsunami. That's when thousands of kids were orphaned, and many sexual predators saw an opportunity and took it. When Hallinan's personable protagonist, Bangkok travel writer Poke Rafferty, rescues a street urchin named Miaow from a life of degradation, complications pile up fast. They include a missing Australian whose computer files depict grotesque crimes against children, as well as a rich Cambodian matron whose own guilty secrets are on an even more monstrous scale. Hallinan's portrayals of Miaow and a pill-popping wreck of a boy known on the Bangkok streets as Superman are drenched with sorrow, but he also manages to keep his tale of blackmail, extortion and revenge spinning along at a speedy clip, despite the heat and humidity.

Like John Burdett, creator of the breakthrough Inspector Sonchai Jitpleecheep series, Hallinan is terrifically fond of the Thais and their tantalizing world of spirits and ghosts. Many readers are likely to find that good feeling infectious, even as they are horrified by what the region's tragic history over the past half-century has left in its wake.

FORGERY
By Sabina Murray
Grove. 248 pp. $24

The main trouble with Sabina Mu
rray's Forgery is that it has juicy material -- art forgery, political intrigue, gun-running and murder -- but Murray handles it all perfunctorily. What seems to get Murray's narrative blood coursing instead is the look and feel of Greece in the summer of 1963 and the neurotic people, many of them Americans, who spend an inordinate amount of time palavering on the veranda over cocktails. What keeps the reader going is a couple of Greek characters who get off some nice lines. Young Nikos Nikolaides gives American antique dealer Rupert Brigg lots of smart advice about Greece. Some of it is culinary-cum-existential, as in, "Instead of sitting in a nice place, we can get a gyros with pita and walk around. We are young men. There's no reason to sit with a salad as if we are waiting for death." Forgery is as flavorsome as a summer month in the Greek isles, but also, alas, as leisurely. ยท

Richard Lipez writes the Donald Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.


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