Sands of Crime
On the face of it, detectives have the perfect job. They call the shots, so to speak, dictating their own hours and their fees. Snooping doesn't require an elaborate dress-for-success wardrobe: A tan raincoat, sneakers, and an anti-social attitude are the mainstays of your average gumshoe's work clothes. Most important, job satisfaction is high. Detecting is one of the few lines of work that unite head with hand, mental with physical labor. So what's the downside? No vacations. Every time detectives try to forget their work for a few days of rest and relaxation, corpses and criminals trail behind like excess luggage. Murder met Hercule Poirot on the Nile, a dead man popped up in Harriet Vane's honeymoon cottage, and a centuries-old crime even had the nerve to intrude into Inspector Alan Grant's hospital room in Josephine Tey's classic, The Daughter of Time. Maybe detectives need to join a union.
Strictly speaking, Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell aren't on vacation in Laurie R. King's O Jerusalem (Bantam, $23.95). Rather, they've fled England to elude a sinister female foe who's nearly succeeded in sending Holmes heavenward. Through the intervention of Holmes's brother, Mycroft, Holmes and Russell take refuge in Palestine, which has just come under British rule. In the company of two Arab guides, the duo wend their way through a silent sandscape that fades into the horizon. But wouldn't you know it? At the first farmhouse where the party stops, they discover a corpse with a dagger protruding from its chest. Soon the bodies and bad guys proliferate until Holmes and Russell realize that they've tumbled upon a plot by rogue Turkish army officers to destroy the unstable peace in Jerusalem by assassinating the British commander in chief of the occupied territory, Gen. Allenby.
Astute historians who are also fans of the wonderful Holmes and Russell series will have already deduced that this novel takes place earlier (in 1919 to be exact) than the more recent ones, which are set in the 1920s. At this early date, Holmes and Russell are still strictly Platonic soulmates, not husband and wife. "I did not really understand my feelings about Holmes," the 19-year-old Russell muses.
"For the last four years this unconscious figure on the bed had been the pillar of sanity and security in my daily life. However, he was also my teacher, he was more than twice my age, and furthermore he had never given me the least indication that his affection for me was anything other than that of a master for a particularly promising student."
Perhaps King, like her characters, needed to take a respite, specifically from the pressure of working out this singular marriage between literature's greatest loner-detective and a young woman who's his equal in everything but experience and self-regard. O Jerusalem returns to the fascinating, shadowy, psychological terrain of their courtship. King enjoys playing around with boundaries and encouraging her characters to transgress them. Russell, for instance, masquerades as a boy throughout her travels in Palestine with Holmes. Even the political plot, in which allegiances shift without warning, and the blurry desert backdrop contribute to the overall sense here of characters moving in a sandstorm in which definitions and identities aren't fixed. King herself, of course, has crossed the most forbidding boundary of them all: She's stepped onto the sacred literary preserve of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, poached Holmes, and brilliantly brought him to life again, in this incarnation as an Ur-feminist in the company of a strong woman who makes Irene Adler look like Minnie Mouse. O Jerusalem is a standout -- rich in Holy Land lore, historical intrigue, and weird sexual sparks.
In the Shadow of the Pyramids
I resisted reading King's Holmes and Russell mysteries for a long time because I assumed they'd be creaky imitations of the original Holmes stories. The Amelia Peabody mysteries are another series that I found unattractive in the abstract -- and can you blame me? The heroine is a late-Victorian matron with a passion for pyramids. With her husband, Emerson, "the greatest Egyptologist of all time," her son, Ramses, an expert in hieroglyphics, and her ward, Nefret, a girl gaga for old bones, she tramps the Land of the Pharaohs, stumbling upon ancient burial sites and, frequently, fresh corpses. The premise just sounded altogether too twee. But after breaking down and reading The Falcon at the Portal (Avon, $24), the 11th book in the series by Elizabeth Peters, I'm ready to admit the error of my prejudice. Sure, the set-up is contrived, but Peabody's world possesses a kind of offbeat, erudite tone -- call it British Empire Screwball -- that makes it more captivating than cloying.
In this latest adventure, Amelia and her clan leave England on a work trip to Egypt. (What other kind is there even for an amateur detective?) Quick as you can say "Tutankhamen," however, menacing things begin to happen. An Egyptian archaeologist, David Todros, who's about to wed the Peabodys' niece, is suspected of passing off forged antiquities to fund the outlaw Egyptian nationalist movement. Meanwhile, a young American is found murdered at the bottom of a pyramid shaft, and Nefret and Ramses edge closer to consummating the mutual desire they've hidden from themselves and the otherwise astute Mrs. Peabody. Peters cleverly complicates her storytelling here, tossing in letters and changing narrators, and conjures up some genuinely shocking plot twists. The Falcon at the Portal was such a treasure that I may just have to excavate my way back through the entire Peabody oeuvre.
Dead in the Water
Minette Walters's latest psychological thriller, The Breaker (Putnam, $23.95), is set on the south coast of England, a locale that attracts weekend boaters and nature lovers. Unfortunately, Police Constable Nick Ingram, the sober star of Walters's story, hardly has any down time to enjoy his sailboat or his picturesque bachelor's cottage. A particularly ghastly murder has taken place close to home, and, while vacationers frolic in the sand and surf, Ingram sweats to catch a wily killer who's perpetrated evil under the sun.
Walters is a master of the macabre who imbues her novels with an intensely eerie atmosphere. Long after a reader finishes one of her books, that atmosphere lingers, infecting the mundane world for days to come. In The Breaker, the creepiness wafts in like a foul fog on the first page of the novel, where an omniscient but helpless narrator describes a near-dead body floating in on the tide:
"She drifted with the waves . . . waking to renewed agony every time salt water seared down her throat and into her stomach. During intermittent periods of lucidity when she revisited, always with astonishment, what had happened to her, it was the deliberate breaking of her fingers that remained indelibly printed on her memory, and not the brutality of her rape."
The victim, who dies before a couple of boys on holiday find her body, is Kate Sumner, a thirtyish wife and mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Hannah. When last seen, Kate was at home with the little girl. Soon after Kate's corpse is discovered, however, Hannah, is found toddling around by herself on the streets of a nearby town. Naturally, Kate's husband is a suspect, especially because Hannah screams in terror every time he approaches her. But then again there's that handsome actor Steven Harding, who was in the vicinity when the boys stumbled upon Kate's body. Steve is a ladies' man who acts in porno movies, and rumor has it that he and Kate were intimate. Another strike against Steve is that he's a boat owner, and Kate was assaulted offshore before she was dumped in the sea to die.
Clearly, Walters has set up a structural challenge for herself: She wants to keep her readers ricocheting between these two suspects for the duration of her long story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this chapter-after-chapter rhythm of alternating certainties might seem tedious. ("Oh, Steve's the murderer; No! It's the husband!") Walters, however, knows exactly what to do to keep her readers engaged and anxious. When the murderer is finally revealed, we, along with Nick Ingram, feel like fools who lack a fine grasp of the obvious.
No Rest for the Weary
Superintendent Alan Markby is another law officer who dwells in a choice vacation spot but never gets a second to smell the roses. Markby -- and his companion, Meredith Mitchell, a Foreign Office honcho -- are featured in Call the Dead Again (St. Martin's, $22.95), the latest in Ann Granger's "Cotsworld" series. This bonny region, distinguished by lots of sheep and thatched-roofed cottages, is a picture perfect locale for "The Ye Olde Village that Harbors a Villain" subgenre of British mystery fiction that Granger writes.
Driving back to quaint Bamford on a dark and lonely night, Meredith Mitchell picks up a beautiful young hitchhiker who asks to be let off at Tudor Lodge, the gracious home of Andrew Penhallow, a well-connected lawyer, and his wife, Carla, a television personality. The next morning, Andrew is found in the garden with his head bashed in. Carla heard nothing: She'd gone to bed early with a migraine. The mysterious hitchhiker is the obvious suspect, especially because she turns out to be intimately connected to Andrew in a way that sets village tongues a-wagging.
Call the Dead Again is an unapologetically straightforward and agreeable whodunit, with suspects and skeletons falling out of every closet. Tudor Lodge itself is so deliciously straight out of central casting that it even has a ghost. Penhallow may have breathed his last breath, but Granger defly demonstrates that there's plenty of life still left in the traditional "cozy" mystery formula.
Bright Lights, Sin City
Atmospherically, if not geographically, Las Vegas is about as far away as you can get from the Cotswolds. The only sheep in Vegas are the ones gathered around the blackjack tables, waiting to be fleeced. But L.A. literary agent Charlemagne "Charlie" Greene likes bright lights and action, so in Marlys Millhiser's Nobody Dies in a Casino (St. Martin's, $22.95) Charlie flies to Vegas for (what else?) a working vacation that turns out to be more of a bother than a breather. First, one of her mid-list authors fires her. Then, Charlie sees a man she knows get fatally pushed into traffic on the busy Vegas strip. After that, the cop Charlie gave her eyewitness report to is the victim of a hit-and-run. Nevada's notorious Area 51, extraterrestrials, and exotic forms of low-life also help ensure that Charlie won't unwind at all on this junket.
The happy fact that there are so many superb female detectives, amateur and professional, around these days works against Charlie Greene, who's only adequate, not outstanding, as a character. She can be funny and gutsy, but she pales in comparison to Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawski, Jeri Howard, and all those other androgynously named sleuthing sisters. I'm afraid Charlie is in need of something more than a vacation.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air." She is also the associate editor of and a contributor to "Mystery and Suspense Writers," which won a 1999 Edgar Award.