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Mysteries
At Home and Abroad They Cry, "Foul Play!"

By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, June 8, 2008

MASTER OF THE DELTA By Thomas H. Cook | Harcourt. 367 pp. $24

There's a lot of foreboding in Thomas H. Cook's new novel. Some afterboding, too: Parts of the story are told in flashbacks. The book builds upon material that has given more than its share to American literature: a Southern town divided between the refined old plantation-era families and the rude underclass. At times it reads like reheated Faulkner seasoned with pinches of Capote.

But Master of the Delta is worth sticking with just the same. For one thing, it offers a variation on its stock setup. Instead of puttering around in the family's moldy mansion, our narrator, Jack Branch, tries to honor his noblesse by teaching English at the local public high school. He puts extra effort into a course on evil in literature, which is less pretentious than it might sound because the author shows the kids responding with wide-eyed fascination to Branch's tales of history's tyrants and traitors.

Cook also provides well-wrought characters, among them Branch's father, forever working on a biography of Lincoln, and Eddie Miller, a student of Branch's who has a particular interest in evil -- his dad was known as the Coed Killer, a nickname well-deserved. With prodding from Branch, Eddie decides to exorcise his father's ghost (he was murdered in prison) by making his life the subject of the course term paper. As Eddie interviews townspeople who knew his father, he dredges up memories and secrets that might better have stayed buried.

Never mind Cook's overuse of "fate," "regret" and "as yet untouched by darkness." This is a novel that rises above its rhetorical excesses.

THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS By Donna Leon | Atlantic Monthly. 276 pp. $24

Until now I have not been a fan of Donna Leon. I'd read two or three of her previous books, and they'd made little impression. The Girl of His Dreams, however, helps me understand why Leon has such a fervent following.

Set in Venice and featuring her series detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti of the city's police force, the story begins when a priest asks Brunetti to look into the finances of a dissenting preacher. Soon, however, Brunetti is distracted by the death of a Rom (gypsy) girl, found in a canal with marks on her body suggesting she was pushed off a roof. Although the commissario works on both cases simultaneously, they seem to have little to do with each other.

But Brunetti is a marvel: smart, cultured and dedicated to his work, all the more so when his pompous, inept superior tries to rein him in. The success of his investigation depends above all on gaining the confidence of the clannish and close-mouthed Rom -- if they will talk to the police, there is a chance of solving the crime. The scenes in which Brunetti visits a Rom encampment are tense, cross-cultural battles of will.

Free of coincidence or obvious contrivance, The Girl of His Dreams is a showcase of nuanced characterization, acute observation and seamless plotting.

HOLLYWOOD CROWS By Joseph Wambaugh | Little, Brown. 343 pp. $26.99

Now in his early 70s, ex-cop Joseph Wambaugh specializes in mysteries with group portraits of policemen and, increasingly, policewomen. The Crows of his new title are cops assigned to the community-relations branch of the LAPD, meaning that they typically field quality-of-life complaints: a neighbor playing his stereo too loud, a local garage whose customers park their cars on private property -- that kind of thing. But the duties aren't always so low-key, not when the community is Hollywood, as it is in this exuberant novel.

Despite its moderate length, Hollywood Crows features a large cast of vivid characters, including a pair of cops who speak in Surfese, the patois of beach bums; a cocaine addict who must become an instant locksmith to pull off the break-in he hopes will change his life; lap-dancers and transsexuals ("This is Hollywood," one cop observes, "where men are men and so are the women"); a gaggle of Hollywood Street Characters, who dress up as Batman or Goofy or Wonder Woman and roam Hollywood Boulevard trying to coax tourists into taking their pictures; and two male cops who become fixated on the wife of the owner of a club in which gentlemen offer up their laps to be danced upon.

Amid all the local color and slapstick, the author also depicts cops in trouble because of alcoholism or depression brought on by constant exposure to humanity at its worst. Wambaugh has been named a grand master by the Mystery Writers of America. Hollywood Crows is Exhibit A for the case that the award was well deserved.

THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK By Fred Vargas | Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds Penguin. 409 pp. Paperback. $14

Can a mystery novelist be too inventive? Fred Vargas (the pseudonym of Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau) injects so many plot points into This Night's Foul Work that one begins to wonder. Two drug dealers are found murdered. Someone is killing stags in the forests of France and cutting out their hearts. An aging female serial killer escapes from jail and may be back in business. A new addition to the staff of Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is found to have been the boyhood victim of a bullying incident in which Adamsberg himself may have taken part. Someone is gathering weird ingredients of an old recipe for eternal life. And that's just a smattering of the unruly goings-on.

Adamsberg is the glue that holds all this together. He's an almost wildly intuitive cop, much admired for his ability to enter into the homicidal mind. Among his colorful subordinates are Violette Retancourt, the policewoman whose great bulk played a key role in helping Adamsberg outfox the Quebec police in his previous adventure, Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand. There's also the newcomer Veyrenc, who shares an odd trait with Ogden, a Dick Tracy villain from the year 1960: the ability to compose instant poetry (doggerel, to be precise) that sums up a situation: e.g., "Cruelty damns sinners to the dark of the grave./Was it vengeance divine or the burden they bore/That turned these young villains to shadows on the shore?"

Such an excess of riches might drive some readers up the wall, but I grow more enamored of Vargas's March-hare fecundity with each book of hers I read. Don't hold back, Madame Fred, say I. ·

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor and the mysteries editor of Book World.

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