Geography can be as important in a good story as character or motive. In these far-flung tales, Texas, feudal Japan, 20th-century Tokyo and Fort Lauderdale all play leading roles.
Come All You Texas Rangers
I don't know if writers think their readers tire of a series hero, or if the writers themselves get bored living with the same characters, or if they just get a new idea or move to a different part of the country. But if none of these things happens, the writers tend to repeat old habits in new clothes. That's more or less the case with James Lee Burke's Billie Bob Holland, the former Texas Ranger turned defense attorney who returns in Heartwood (Doubleday, $24.95), a worthy sequel to 1997's Cimarron Rose.
This time out Holland is hired by Wilbur Pickett, an itinerant dreamer whose horse never comes in. Pickett is accused of stealing bearer bonds from Earl Dietrich, a rich oil investor who maintains his power by controlling the sheriff and most of the rest of the little town of Deaf Smith, Tex., in the hill country north of Austin. The case requires Holland to come up against Dietrich's money and power, which rules not only the law but also Chicano gangs as far away as San Antonio. Evidence disappears in fires or suddenly is discovered in a search of Pickett's home; witnesses turn up dead or wind up in jail, convicted of other crimes. And more dangerous still are Holland's long-dormant desires for Dietrich's beautiful wife, Peggy Jean, whom Holland once loved in high school, and his need to protect his illegitimate son and a young abused neighbor boy he has befriended.
On the surface, Holland's life bears little resemblance to that of Dave Robicheaux, Burke's Louisiana crusader. But both are rough sentimentalists, haunted by histories of illegal violence, prey to memories, and fueled in their missions by their intense suspicion -- bordering on hatred -- of the wealthy. At times, this vision of the rich as evil incarnate makes for a simplified plot -- why is it that Dietrich's son suffers from impotence while all the Chicanos and Chicanas are virile and aggressive, for example?
But for the most part Burke is a savvy writer and social critic with an inventive imagination and a populist's love for his characters. No one writes more beautifully about the dry sage landscape of Texas, and few writers could pull off a character like Kippy Jo, Pickett's blind but visionary wife, who foretells events with metaphoric clarity. The book feels more like an old-fashioned Western than a contemporary mystery at times, but that's part of its attraction. Like the wood of its title ("some trees add a layer of new wood under their bark each year. The core of the tree grows stronger and stronger, until it's almost like iron."), Burke's stories last.
On the Run in Medieval Japan
Dale Furutani takes us back to feudal 17th-century Japan in Jade Palace Vendetta (Morrow, $23), the second in his trilogy of works about Matsuyama Kaze, a samurai warrior turned ronin (masterless) after his master and mistress are killed. Kaze roams the countryside trying to fulfill his promise to his lady to find her kidnapped daughter, while he himself is sought by troops loyal to the new shogun, Ieyasu Takugawa. Moving along the Takaido Road in his quest, Kaze aids a threatened merchant, Hishigawa, by killing the thieves who are anxious to rob him. Asked to give the merchant help and protection, Kaze tacitly agrees, until he eventually becomes Hishigawa's guest and bodyguard in his home in Kamakura. There Kaze learns more than he wants to about the unscrupulous trader, who speaks passionately of his wife, Yuchan, and her beauty while guarding -- or imprisoning -- her in a jade palace along with other young women. Meantime, Kaze discovers that there is a legal vendetta out for Hishigawa, and joins forces with Yuchan's family while serving the merchant.
Furutani writes with a spare detachment that gives us a sharp portrait of the Japanese landscape and an even more detailed understanding of the reigning codes of conduct and class and the ideals of the 1600s. There is some awkwardness in the memory portions of the story, in which Kaze recalls both the last days with his lady and lord and his earlier training in the samurai code. But Kaze's single-minded sense of purpose, along with his efforts to reconcile events with the ethics of his training, makes for a wonderful study of morality and history. Add carefully drawn action scenes of swordplay and night-crawling ninjas, and you have a story worth attention.
As the middle of a trilogy (begun in Death at the Crossroads), this book both stands alone and makes me eager to see its sequel.
Flowers Can Be Fatal
Contemporary Japan is the setting for Sujata Massey's The Flower Master (HarperCollins, $24). Rei Shimura, a young Japanese-American woman raised in California but living in Tokyo, returns for a third adventure, this time focused on the traditional but highly competitive world of ikebana, or flower arranging. A freelance antique dealer, Rei is pushed into ikebana by her Aunt Norie, who is a longtime student and teacher of the ancient art. But their work is disrupted by the murder of Sakuro Sato, one of the most important (and unpopular) teachers at the Kayama School of ikebana. Since Sato disliked Norie, Norie is suspected of the murder. But other crimes occur as well: Rei is poisoned and almost dies, her guide and teacher to the world of antiques is hurt in an auto accident caused by tacks on the road, there is some mystery surrounding the death years earlier of the headmaster's wife, and meanwhile the headmaster himself is more intimate with some of the students than is seemly.
Massey provides us with a wonderfully detailed tour of Japan, and of ikebana, from critiques of the flower arrangements to codes of decorum. Subplots involving environmental protest, pesticides and new challenges to traditional forms of the art make us realize the complex political side of this classic form. Still, the action stutters and stops too often to maintain the tension, and the emotional drive of the story gets lost in the details and the lengthy conversations. Rei is a likable but somewhat bland guide to this world, so we wind up more drawn to the surrounding characters: her mentor, Yasushi Ishida, her Aunt Norie. The potential is here for a rich series of stories of cultural dislocation and discovery, but it requires a surer hand and more intimate blend of story and scene.
The Decent Detective
Jeremiah Healey's John Francis Cuddy wanders into a different foreign territory in Spiral (Pocket, $23), the 13th novel about the Boston investigator. In the first pages, Cuddy's new love, Nancy Meagher, is killed in a plane crash on her way to a conference in San Francisco. Bereft, Cuddy tries to drown his grief first in liquor, then in work. He travels to Ft. Lauderdale to help Nicolas Helides, his former commanding officer in Vietnam, who has called on him to find out who killed his granddaughter Veronica. Just 13, Veronica was found naked in Helides's swimming pool the night of a party at his house. The list of guests ranges from Helides's much younger wife to his wayward sons, one a rock star as famous for his drug incidents as his music, the other a chronic depressive who isolates himself from the world.
Cuddy learns little that is pleasant about Veronica. Young but voluptuous and eager to test her budding sexuality, Veronica taunted friends, came on to every adult she met, dabbled in cocaine. She was about to launch a career as a singer for her father's band, but in the meantime she simply acted the role of spoiled child: She challenged everyone, ignored her parents' admonitions, appeared naked in homemade videos, tried to seduce her stepmother on the one hand and her father's band partners on the other.
Trying to find her killer, Cuddy learns more than he wants about the world of music, is threatened by everything from a knife ambush to trees that drip deadly acids, and has to find justice among adults more adolescent than their children. And in the empty hours there are memories of Nancy, and oblique invitations from an attractive Florida policewoman.
The tale goes on too long, and sometimes the interviews with suspects seem too mechanical, one character following another onto the scene as in a fashion show. But the writing is strong, and, with his staid, even stiff, but generous decency, Cuddy has become one of most interesting of series heroes.
Paul Skenazy is the author of "James Cain" and co-editor of "San Francisco in Fiction" and "Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston." He teaches literature at the University of California.