MYSTERIES

Contemporary Masters Offer Unique New Twists on the Classic Whodunit

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Reviewed by Art Taylor
Sunday, May 4, 2008

WINTER STUDY By Nevada Barr | Putnam. 370 pp. $24.95

For much of Nevada Barr's 14th Anna Pigeon mystery, it's not a question of who-, why- or howdunit, but of whether a crime has been committed at all. No body shows up until almost halfway through the novel, and even then how can you hold a wild animal guilty? As Anna remarks, "However vicious an animal attack, it was neither a sin nor a crime."

That animal is a wolf -- the subject of a 50-year-old "Winter Study" of wolf-moose relations in Isle Royale National Park off Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Park Ranger Pigeon was stationed here one summer early in her career (see Barr's second novel, A Superior Death), but the off-season proves a different world: bitter cold, lashed with snow, forlorn in its isolation. Sharing a single generator are a quartet of devoted researchers and a pair of scientists dispatched by Homeland Security to consider shutting down the study, downsizing research and beefing up security "to better protect the border from terrorists." Amid clashing personalities and conflicting agendas, the atmosphere indoors grows nearly as frosty as the air outside, and the tension ratchets up a few more notches when the wolves abandon their routines, boldly enter human territory and stalk the team. Oversized tracks appear; unrecognized DNA shows up in wolf scat; the mystery deepens. "It's like wolf plus . . . something," says one scientist ominously, and after the first death, no one feels safe.

One might label this book Hound of the Baskervilles meets And Then There Were None meets a Michael Crichton novel, and the narrative itself references works ranging from "Little Red Riding Hood" to The Shining. But this is a Nevada Barr book through and through, with its careful examination of how humans interact with the natural world, its infectious fascination with nature in general and those dense, resonant descriptions: "Desperate earth-starved trees poked skeletal branches through the snow cover, black arthritic fingers reaching for a sky that was the same color as the grave they sank their roots in." Barr skillfully uses archetypal images of the wolf -- myths, fairy tales and more -- to deepen the suspense: wolf at the door, wolf in sheep's clothing, werewolves among us. But Pigeon knows that "wolves' reputation as cold-blooded killers of little girls in red capes was unearned," and ultimately it's not the wolf out there that's frightening, but the more sinister human nearby.

DELUSION By Peter Abrahams | Morrow. 297 pp. $24.95

Hurricane Bernadine (looking awfully like Katrina) has hit the city of Belle Isle in a bad way. Among the residents sifting through the physical and emotional debris, two stand out. Alvin "Pirate" DuPree has lost two decades on a murder rap but finds his prospects on the upswing when FEMA unearths a photograph proving his innocence. Meanwhile, Nell Jarreau's fortunes take a downturn: Her boyfriend was the murder victim, her testimony locked Pirate away, and the real killer may still be on the loose. Even worse news: Nell later married the original investigating officer, and that double-edged photograph smacks of suppressed evidence. The winds of change, they are a-blowin'.

Nell searches for answers to repair her splintering family relationships, but piecing together the clues proves secondary here. By the book's midpoint, even inattentive readers will likely see the solution's outline. To Abrahams's great credit, however, that hardly matters. The novel's power derives instead from delving deep into these characters' lives. Nell's waning confidence and growing suspicions lead her to question the frail faith she has put in herself and her loved ones. Pirate compares his story to another faith tale: Job's. Now that God has "turned the captivity" for him, he's getting his life back plus a half-million-dollar settlement from the city. But these sudden boons hardly erase past troubles, and he remains haunted by the question "Why did God pick on Job in the first place?" Equally pressing here: Is God delivering more grueling tests ahead? Even as the mystery seems transparent, these characters' fates and the integrity of justice itself seem to swing in a very unsteady balance, with Abrahams keeping the tension taut right through the end.

COMPULSION By Jonathan Kellerman | Ballantine. 337 pp. $27

A young woman with car trouble is rescued by a Lauren Bacall-type in a Bentley, only to find their destination a little too final. A retired schoolteacher fetching her morning paper is stabbed by an elderly gent driving a late-model Mercedes. In the wake of these murders, some Internet searching reveals a "cold case" crime with another luxury car connection: two beauticians killed by a cowboy in a black Lincoln. All of which leaves psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD detective Milo Sturgis tracking a serial killer with a clear modus operandi but no apparent motive.

This novel's structure is more classical: a dutiful search for connections conducted witness by witness, clue by clue. But the killer's identity seems evident early, and much of the plot simply hinges on locating him or her. As one character says: "So we know whodunit and maybe at least part of whydunit and howdunit. Now all we have to do is find this altruist." Kellerman keeps the action moving swiftly, writing in staccato paragraphs and brisk, bantering dialogue. With a knowing wink, he has one witness complain about New Yorker stories, saying the key should be "to communicate, not to pontificate." The author practices what his characters preach: Little pontification slows down this story.

Still, one of Kellerman's draws is his own background as a psychologist, and the maladies here often cry out for more analysis. The book is rife with bursts of commentary on family values and dysfunctions, society's materialism, even the vogue for reinventing oneself, "the pastime of the new millennium." But there's less effort toward illuminating the central villain's complex pathology than toward saving up for shock value in the finale. The horror is exposed, some gruesome details are laid on the table, and as Delaware himself admits, he just "rattled off a bunch of jargon that seemed to make everyone happy."

THE EYE OF THE LEOPARD By Henning MankellTranslated from the SwedishBy Steven T. Murray | New Press. 315 pp. $26.95

Fans of Mankell's Kurt Wallander series, take note: The Eye of the Leopard is less a detective novel than a coming-of-age tale. Yes, murder rears a brutally decapitated head late in the book, but no real inquiry follows. The main investigation involves a middle-aged Swede pondering his own past, and his guilt stems mostly from having been unfair to the people he left behind.

Ambitiously structured and themed, the novel begins with Hans Olofson lying in a malarial fever on his Zambian farm, desperately fearful of the workers outside, the "200 black human beings who would gladly murder me, slit my throat, offer up my genitals in sacrifice, eat my heart." Subsequent chapters alternate between his first years in Africa and, further back, his boyhood and young adulthood in Sweden -- twinned stories that Olofson "has still not given up hope of someday understanding." He blames himself for a friend's childhood accident and a lover's tragic end, questions the impulse that took him to Africa to atone for these sins, and ponders time's fleeting nature -- unfortunately with less philosophy than fluff: "Does time have a face? How can one tell when it's waving and saying goodbye?" He considers, endlessly it seems, the relationship between Europeans and Africans in post-independence Zambia: the white man's contempt and fear, the black man's festering hatred, everywhere pervasive corruption and simmering violence.

"You're in Africa now. And the white man has never understood Africa," one native Zambian tells Olofson. But while this refrain crops up time and again, with too many characters serving only to provide broader historical context, Olofson makes slow progress toward bridging that central misunderstanding. (One might imagine a detective idly repeating, ad nauseam, "Yep, this is one tough case.") So can the white man understand the mystery that is Africa? Olofson finally thinks yes. But the image that solves that mystery -- the point from which "all ideas of the future for this continent must be derived" -- seems tragically oversimplified, sentimental even.

As for Mankell's comments on "how time flies," the plodding 300 pages it took to reach that oversimplified image prove that time's only fleeting when you really are having fun. ยท

Art Taylor is currently teaching a course in American detective fiction at George Mason University.


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