When the suspect is in the family.

By Art Taylor
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Long gone are the days when Raymond Chandler claimed that the archetypal detective hero was a "lonely man" and wrote, "I do not care much about his private life." Today readers care about private lives in mysteries, family included. And family lies at the heart of this quartet of novels, in which relatives take central roles as victims or witnesses or even adversaries.

Little FaceBy Sophie Hannah SOHO. 310 pp. $25

When young mother Alice Fancourt returns home from her first afternoon away from newborn Florence, she finds the front door ajar and her husband, David, just waking from a nap. A conventional thriller might have Alice discover an empty bassinet, but Little Face adds several twists: The baby's there, yet Alice swears vehemently that it's not her Florence, David swears that it is, and the police can't muster enough evidence to pursue the case.

The novel is told primarily from two perspectives. In narration just unhinged enough to call into question her sanity, Alice details the events of a single week -- from the horrible discovery one Friday afternoon to the following Friday morning, when a DNA test promises to reveal the infant's true identity. In her musings, Alice provides background on her husband's emotional distance and her mother-in-law Vivienne's attentions, which had moved quickly from doting to domineering during the pregnancy.

While Alice's chapters detail her tense, terrible ordeal, alternating chapters begin at week's end, when Alice and the baby are reported missing. These sections are told from the perspective of the police, particularly Simon Waterhouse, a brilliant detective who's become smitten with Alice and who uses her disappearance to reexamine her claims about Florence and revisit an older, supposedly solved crime: the murder of David's first wife.

Mysteries abound -- Who is Little Face? What's happened to her and Alice? Was the wrong man convicted for the first wife's murder? -- but if the answers prove clunky, the author delves more successfully into moral quandaries: What does motherhood mean? What should a mother do when she thinks her child is in danger -- especially if her own family doesn't agree? Alice herself says, "Sometimes you have to choose: child or grandchild, husband or daughter, son or daughter-in-law." It's those choices and their consequences that make Little Face compelling.

Down RiverBy John Hart Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur. 325 pp. $24.95

Vandalism, arson, assault, a street fight, a meth lab, some illegal gambling, a string of dead bodies -- the thrills come fast and furious in the wake of Adam Chase's ignominious return to his hometown of Salisbury, N.C. But despite the many present-day dramas, the book's real concern is with the shadow cast by his past.

Five years before the novel's events, Chase was charged with murder, and though he was ultimately acquitted, people have proven "quick to judge and long to remember." Called back to town under mysterious circumstances, he is long to remember certain things himself: how his stepmother testified against him, and, worse, how his father sided with her. Chase also wrestles with his own betrayals. In the wake of the trial, he fled two women who loved him -- one of them now a detective investigating the present-day crimes, the second a victim of one of those crimes.

Hart's success in this second novel is uneven. Several scenes plumb genuine emotions and explore family tensions in surprising, poignant ways, but others are sullied by melodrama. As a detective, Chase seems equal parts hot-headed and dim-witted, sometimes going off half-cocked over circumstantial evidence and other times scratching his head over clues that even the least astute readers will piece together easily.

Despite these missteps, however, Hart gathers the story's many strands into a satisfying and surprising conclusion, one that simultaneously reveals the true strength of family bonds and then sets them up to be tested again.

Pandora's DaughterBy Iris Johansen St. Martin's. 374 pp. $25.95

What is the secret of Iris Johansen's popularity? It can't be nuanced character development, crisp dialogue or keen expository skills. Maybe her many readers (according to her publisher, she has racked up 16 consecutive bestsellers) just like her plots. If so, here goes:

On her commute home, Atlanta doctor Megan Blair is forced off the road by a tailgating truck, just one strand of an international web of intrigue: good versus evil in a race to track down the Ledger, an elaborate family tree dating from the Spanish Inquisition that contains information on people with psychic abilities. Megan's mother had been able to release other people's dormant psychic traits. Unfortunately, the power often brings dire results, and the father of one of her unintentional victims is intent on revenge. Having already murdered Megan's mother, he now wants to kill Megan, then work his way branch by branch up the full family tree. Megan has to come to terms with her nascent powers, revenge her mother's death and help protect the Ledger and the larger family.

Surprisingly, these paranormal angles are less unrealistic than the paper-thin characters or stilted speeches. Characters don't develop so much as make abrupt shifts in attitude and intimate revelation typically amounts to trite dialogue: "You're not alone. I'm here for you. I care for you. If I had a daughter, I couldn't love her more. I wish you were my daughter." Repetitive, melodramatic -- you could say soap opera-ish, but daytime TV is better.

The Devil's WhisperBy Miyuki Miyabe Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi Kodansha. 256 pp. $24.95

Family misfortune is no stranger to 16-year-old Mamoru Kusaka. His father embezzled 50 million yen and abandoned him and his mom 13 years earlier, leaving him to suffer the shame of his father's crimes. In recent months, his mother died. Now, living with relatives, Mamoru believes that calamity has targeted him again: His uncle, a taxi driver, has been jailed for killing a woman he claims ran in front of his car. But when Mamoru attempts to prove his uncle's innocence, he stumbles upon crimes much larger than one family's ill fate: a series of mysterious deaths and hints of another killing to come. At the same time, the accident sets into motion another chain of events that ironically leads back to Mamoru's father and forces the boy to confront questions about the man he wants to be.

"I don't believe we inherit our characters," one mentor tells Mamoru. "If frogs only produced frogs, we'd have nothing but frogs everywhere making a racket. . . . It's so interesting to watch the polliwogs turn into dogs and horses and other types of animals."

The joy here lies in seeing what that polliwog will become and how, and the novel consistently surprises us along the way. Each mystery solved reveals yet another mystery to be explored, and each layer peeled away deepens the moral complexity, ultimately leaving Mamoru with some heavy choices -- each path wrong, each path right, and no answer easy, right up to the final page. ¿

Art Taylor is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University. His mystery fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many publications.


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