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MYSTERIES

Book Reviews of 'Murder in the Latin Quarter' and 'August Heat'

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By Art Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER

By Cara Black

This Story

Soho. 317 pp. $24

AUGUST HEAT

By Andrea Camilleri

Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli

Penguin. 277 pp.

"They say the past is a foreign country," comments a character in "Murder in the Latin Quarter," this latest Aimée Leduc mystery set in Paris. Aimée finds herself exploring the suddenly alien continent of her own history after the abrupt appearance -- and then disappearance -- of a woman claiming to be her sister, Mireille Leduc, the daughter of a Haitian woman who'd known her father during his university days.

Verifying the woman's story may lead Aimée to hidden truths about her family: "The truth. An elusive thing at best. Her father had never revealed Mireille's existence; she had a mother whose name her father had refused to mention after she'd left, as if she had never existed. Her life was entangled by the cobwebs of the unspoken past." But she's quickly drawn into another mystery when she discovers the body of a Haitian scientist with whom Mireille had been involved. Because Mireille's mother had been killed in Haiti by Papa Doc Duvalier's Tonton Macoutes, and because the motivations for the scientist's murder may also stretch back into that history, Aimée must look into the country's long saga of poverty, malnutrition and violence.

As usual, Cara Black trains her tour guide's eye on architectural and historical detail as Aimée's search for Mireille leads through a Latin Quarter thick with "the whispers of ghosts" and deep into the catacombs. Realism is occasionally strained, as Aimée poses as a student reporter, pretends to be looking for a cellist for a birthday party and stumbles regularly into the right place at the wrong time (she's the Nancy Drew of the Fifth Arrondissement). But the unfolding drama remains appealing, and surprises lie in wait for Aimée right up to a cliffhanger ending urging us on to the next installment.

"August Heat," the latest of Camilleri's novels translated into English, may seem a trifle in some ways. Certainly the book has its layers of darkness: the discovery of a corpse in a buried trunk, a 16-year-old girl who vanished six years earlier; rumors that one suspect has become a sex tourist, traveling abroad to sate his interest in underage girls; and hints of a conspiracy that may involve the local government, the local mobsters or both. But Camilleri often presents it all with curmudgeonly whimsy.

While solving the disappearance of a young boy, Inspector Salvo Montalbano uncovers a hidden section of the house the child's family had been renting and finds a dead body within: "a cross between a mummy and a giant parcel ready for shipping." Reconstructing the past holds the key to the crime -- literally so, when Montalbano places the dead girl's twin sister at the murder scene to unmask the killer. But the joys of "August Heat" arise less from the central plot than from its margins: Montalbano's never-flagging fondness for food, his ruminations on aging and his commentaries on Italian society. (In addition to capturing Camilleri's dialectal quirks, translator Stephen Sartarelli also provides notes that explain the book's many historical and political references.)

Often, the investigation serves as a kind of scaffolding from which to hang skit-length romps: Montalbano posing as a "Plenipotentiary Minister" to trick the head of forensics or endlessly dressing and undressing in his office to fend off thick summer sweat, a running joke. Even that twin sister starts out as a gag, with Montalbano inventing the woman on a whim to tease an over-amorous prosecutor and then being surprised himself when she emerges as an actual person (and a romantic interest, despite the 33-year age difference between her and the detective).

"Was this any way to carry on an investigation?" Montalbano muses to himself at one point. "It was starting to look like a comedy routine." That assessment might well apply to much of "August Heat," even as darker forces close in. But the occasional absurdity doesn't detract from the novel's myriad pleasures.

Taylor regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.


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