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Mysteries

Plots can only thicken when set in the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea.

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Reviewed by Richard Lipez
Sunday, February 3, 2008; Page BW11

Their settings are all over the place, from Pyongyang to Brooklyn, but what these mystery novelists have in common is panache. Fans of other genres should be so lucky.

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THE GRAVING DOCK By Gabriel Cohen | Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur. 296 pp. $23.95

It's fitting that a Buddhist nun comes to play a key role in the life of NYPD detective Jack Leightner because the enduring feature of the Brooklyn neighborhoods in this dark, lustrous police procedural is impermanence -- a central tenet of Buddhist belief. Once-vibrant Red Hook, where Leightner grew up, has lost its waterfront jobs and its Loew's movie palace. And in November of 2001, when two fishermen drag a coffin out of the harbor containing the corpse of a 10-year-old boy, the lower Manhattan skyline across the way is missing the recently destroyed World Trade Center's twin towers. People all across the city feel jittery. On a subway train that stalls, pulses quicken and riders think, What does this mean?

A senior detective with the Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, Leightner has barely recovered from the bullet wound he suffered in Red Hook, the first book in this brilliant series. The divorced Leightner wants to propose marriage to divorcee Michelle Wilber, who nursed him through both personal and civic traumas. But he keeps losing the engagement ring, his beeper repeatedly summons him to headquarters, and she starts to wander emotionally. There's plenty of suspense in The Graving Dock, not the least of which centers on whether or not these two damaged good souls can have a life together.

The dead boy is one of several murder victims, all of whom have "G.I." written on their forehead with a Magic Marker. Governor's Island is one of the Brooklyn locales to which Leightner's investigation leads him, though "G.I." also turns out to have a far more ominous significance. The Graving Dock fairly oozes Brooklyn cop lore. "Floater Week," for instance, is the period in April when the harbor warms up and corpses begin to surface. The book is smartly opinionated, too. Leightner is grateful to be working homicides instead of narcotics. Drug enforcement "was pointless, like shoveling sand from one end of a beach to the other."

At a time when some of the older masterful cop writers, like Ed McBain, are dying or just fading away, Cohen's appearance comes as a relief and pleasure.

HIDDEN MOON By James Church | Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur. 293 pp. $23.95

One of the most weirdly appealing police procedurals this season is the second Inspector O novel. It is set in, of all places, North Korea. James Church is described by the publisher as the pseudonym for a former Western intelligence officer in Asia, and the man does seem to know his stuff. Who else but somebody who's been there could write a plausible scene in which a bank manager tells a senior police inspector, "And if you start harassing me I'll file a complaint that will dump you in a pig farm so far away you'll have to check a map."

Mild, beset, sarcastic Inspector O is investigating the first bank robbery ever to take place in "safe, gray Pyongyang." One of the robbers has been struck and killed by a bus while fleeing, yet the morgue director claims not to have received a body. Competing government agencies, each of them 100 percent corrupt, are either involved or know more than they are telling. Here was a case, O realizes, that "had sharp edges and anyone handling it was going to get sliced."

One of the surprising features of the Hermit Kingdom is how may foreigners work there, most of them doing business that benefits the Communist Party elite. O does his best amid all the poverty and decay, although he can't really argue with a despondent fellow officer who tells him, "It's impossible to be happy here. You, of all people, know that."

THE WANDERING GHOST By Martin Limon SOHO. 314 pp. $24

The odds are slim that two police procedurals set in Korea will show up at the same time, but here is another one, and it's also a winner. The Wandering Ghost is a military police procedural, with two U.S. 8th Army investigators in South Korea in the mid-1970s searching for Corp. Jill Matthewson, who has vanished. Is it foul play, or has the female officer, who is fed up with sexual and other harassment at her base, gone AWOL and maybe even gone native? One report has her working in a high-toned Korean brothel.

The main attractions in this fifth of a series are the investigators, lawyerly George Sueno and impulsive Ernie Bascom. They are both plucky and good-humored, and they tiptoe around or cheerfully bulldoze army rules they consider silly. Neither is crazy about the Korean winter, which Bascom calls " 'Nam on ice." But unlike most of the other Americans they meet, the two develop a rapport with Korean people. Both are outraged over the death of a schoolgirl who was run over by a reckless G.I. The wandering ghost of the title is that of the girl, whose spirit has been deprived of both justice and a home.

As in Hidden Moon, official depravity is rampant -- though most of it here, depressingly, is American. Limon, like James Church, seems to know Korean culture intimately -- and the language, too. In one passage, Sueno discusses Korean terms for different kinds of rain; some of the words are onomatopoetic. This is niche mystery writing that's abstruse as can be, but altogether engaging.

THE TOMB OF ZEUS By Barbara Cleverly | Delta. 353 pp. Paperback, $13

Barbara Cleverly, a prize-winning author of historical suspense novels, introduces a new series, the Laetitia Talbot mysteries, with The Tomb of Zeus. Talbot is an aspiring archaeologist who labors to solve a murder near a dig in Crete in 1928. Keen, perky and sometimes provocatively sexy, Talbot is joined in her investigative efforts by William Gunning, a charmer who was mangled in the Great War. He ditched Talbot the previous year, so there's some ill will over that. They are both houseguests at the villa of rude, renowned archaeologist Theodore Russell when their host's wispy wife is found hanged by the neck with her husband's bathrobe cord -- not pretty, and possibly homicidal.

It's all sparkling fun, like one of those multi-episode BBC boaters-and-flappers TV mystery series, and it moves at about the same pace.

WHO IS CONRAD HIRST? By Kevin Wignall | Simon & Schuster. 227 pp. Paperback, $14

Wignall's British protagonist, supposedly dehumanized by a war in the Balkans, is a professional assassin whose conscience acts up, and he wants out. When he tells his boss he's "thinking about quitting," the incredulous supervisor sarcastically replies," I didn't know you smoked." So Hirst has to pop off the boss, plus three others who know what he's been up to. The trouble is, Hirst hasn't been on the payroll of a German crime kingpin, as he had thought, but of the CIA. Oops. While not entirely plausible, this thriller is brisk and to the point. And it does not traffic in euphemisms. Hirst doesn't "take out" his victims, he kills them. *

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


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