Future Imperfect

One of the mystery genre's most annoying pretensions is the current notion that extreme violence is somehow groundbreaking or, even worse, feminist if a female author depicts it. Such passages are usually either boring or offensive -- unless they are presented as an integral part of a character's psychological portrait (as is the case with early Thomas Harris) or as a deliberate statement about society as a whole.

Both of these motivations appear to be at work in the case of Out, by Natsuo Kirino, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Kodansha, $22.95). The book comes to the United States after causing a stir in Japan, where Kirino's graphic description of a body being dismembered and an audacious, sexually violent ending shocked many readers. Americans may have the same reaction. But if you can accept these passages, Out offers an intriguing look at the darker sides of Japanese society while smashing stereotypes about Japanese women.

Forget about flower arranging and geisha girls. Out begins by introducing four women who work on the night crew of a box lunch factory in a Tokyo suburb. Every night, despite their perpetual exhaustion, the women carefully smooth the squares of rice, ladle sauce over pork and chicken and arrange the chopsticks in each plastic box. At the end of the shift, they head home to overcrowded apartments where indifferent husbands, sullen teenagers and demanding in-laws are poised to chip away at their free time. The women can barely keep afloat in the present; a future seems impossible to envision. The hopelessness of their lives binds them together, and so, when one of them snaps and murders her husband, it seems inevitable that the other three should agree to help her cover up the crime. They successfully dispose of his body in a gruesome scene that is deliberately written to be the antithesis of their normal, convention-bound lives.

As they attempt to resume their routine, the women discover that they can never go back. Especially when a player in Tokyo's seedy underworld is suspected of the murder and his gambling and illegal nightclub enterprises are destroyed as a result. His thirst for revenge is among a number of factors that draw the women further and further into the grim world of Japan's organized crime society. At the same time, they are forced to confront the darkest recesses of their own souls. Some of the women give in to greed, while others find a strength and resilience they did not know they had. Each character is vividly drawn, and their relationships to one another are often inspiring.

Out is not easy to read. The passages of violence, in particular, are hampered by an abruptness that borders on the choppy, probably caused by the complexity of translating from the Japanese. But it is a fascinating tale nonetheless. Noir fans will find themselves turning page after page in hopes of discovering that at least some of the women survive.

Nasty Medicine

Kate Wilhelm's latest Barbara Holloway novel, Clear and Convincing Proof (Mira, $23.95) uses a breakneck pace plus crisp characterizations to draw readers into an otherwise prosaic plot and to keep them guessing through a series of entertaining plot twists.

Erica Castle has moved to a newly inherited (though ramshackle) house in Eugene, Ore. She is determined to start her life over. When she volunteers at a local rehab hospital as a way to meet people, she is soon drawn to the intensity of this unusual place. Unlike the faceless, profit-seeking conglomerates taking over medicine today, the administration of Kelso/McIvey Center is staffed by dedicated professionals who believe that the only way to bring a person back from a devastating accident or illness is to focus on every aspect of recovery -- mental, spiritual and physical. Unfortunately, a brilliant but callous surgeon wants to turn the facility into a world-class surgery center to feed his massive ego. He expects his psychologically abused wife, Annie -- a much-liked volunteer at the Center -- to help him. But before sides can be taken, the surgeon ends up murdered on hospital grounds. Is the killer one of the directors? A patient? The doctor's wife? Or even the head physical therapist, a highly respected practitioner whose progress with even the most hopeless of patients is legendary?

Local lawyer Barbara Holloway enters the case with a no-nonsense attitude. She is a refreshing character whose relationship with her aging father -- himself a lawyer -- adds a layer of warmth to the story. Holloway takes matters into her own hands and forces the case to a conclusion.

Wilhem's writing keeps the story humming along while still providing an evocative setting and memorable characters. This book is recommended for readers who like legal thrillers or hospital settings, as well as fans of the Pacific Northwest.

Rock and Ruin

Greg Rucka has built a following among readers of hardboiled fiction with books featuring professional bodyguard Atticus Kodiak. In his first stand-alone, A Fistful of Rain (Bantam, $23.95), Rucka departs from his series to give readers a hard-hitting novel centered on the unforgettable Mim Bracca, one of the most intriguing fictional characters to come along in a long while.

Mim, lead guitarist for an alternative rock group, is haunted by a turbulent past. Though extraordinarily talented, she is a tortured and angry alcoholic seeking to escape the memory of her mother's death at her father's hands over a decade before. As the novel opens, Mim has been forced to leave her band's latest tour because of substance abuse. With nowhere else to go, she has headed back to the closest place she can call home: Portland, Ore. She really has no idea of how extreme her drinking problem is, nor does she realize the extent of her newfound stardom. She has been too busy playing her beloved Telecaster to notice how big a celebrity she has become -- or how much danger this status has put her in.

Unpleasant surprises await her at home. Not only is she kidnapped, forced to strip and then inexplicably returned to her front door unharmed an hour later; no one will believe her story. Even worse, her father has been released from prison early and is now living with the brother she had hoped might, somehow, save her. More setbacks follow, made worse by Mim's frequent blackouts and self-destructive binges. Her privacy is violated in the most public of ways, she is accused of serious crimes, and she finds herself hampered by a mistrust of others when it comes to finding a way out of the mess she has helped create.

While the plot requires a little too much explaining, Rucka's writing is strong and confident. In typical hardboiled style, he describes virtually every move of the protagonist, but this technique -- which can sometimes be ponderous -- works here because the setting is unusual and Mim is so compelling. Rucka is spot-on when it comes to depicting the frenzy that ensues when a rock band achieves stardom and the industry sharks start circling, hoping for a bite of the profits. His love of music shines through in the story, as does his fascination with complex, destructive personalities like Mim Bracca. The reader quickly grows to care about her as much as the author clearly does.

Truffles Are My Business

Once in a while, a book comes along that is sheer delight. Such is Little Indiscretions, by Carmen Posadas, translated from the Spanish by Christopher Andrews (Random House, $23.95). Winner of Spain's Planeta Prize, this slender novel has it all: an elegant setting, a taut time frame, a cast of intriguing characters and beautifully crafted writing that lends both glamour and insight to the tale.

The story begins late at night when chef Nestor Chaffinno wraps up a successful dinner party by storing his beloved truffles in the client's walk-in freezer. Without warning, the door clicks shut behind him, condemning him to a slow and very cold death. As he thinks back over the weeks preceding his murder, we learn that this meticulously mannered chef knows many secrets, both about exquisite cooking and the lives of the dinner guests. His thoughts supply a lively backdrop for the story that follows, introducing characters and motivations.

Posadas then takes us into the heads of each of the main suspects. We meet Nestor's assistant, a Czech body builder who is sometimes perplexed by but always accepting of the strange ways of Western Europe; a well-respected judge whose wife has recently died, pitching him into the path of a temptation he thought he had beaten decades ago; a successful art dealer whose current respectability masks a shady past involving Argentina's nastiest political era; a spoiled little rich girl who thinks that multiple body piercings will help erase the pain of her brother's too-early death; and an aging society beauty whose icy control of her world is threatening to melt in the face of an unexpected, forbidden love. The characters in turn reveal their pasts, their dreams, their transgressions and their fears layer by layer as the book moves steadily toward its climax. Posadas never makes a misstep with these characters, despite wide disparities in their ages and backgrounds.

Best of all, the story is set against a slightly exaggerated, sensual Madrid, a place where fortune tellers possess real powers of prophecy, wear tiny brocaded slippers fit for an empress and have faces that seem to shift in shape; where nightclubs close at 3 a.m., then open back up again in minutes, transformed for a mysterious, nocturnal crowd; where love of any persuasion can be satisfied behind closed doors for the right price; and, most of all, a place were secrets kept for years have a way of coming out in the end.

The finale of the book makes this abundantly clear. The chef's murder emerges as ironic, and the solution seems deceptively simple -- until the reader slowly realizes its implications. You may find yourself closing the book to conduct a mental inventory of your past sins as you are forced to acknowledge that secrets have a way of betraying even those who resolutely keep them.

Special mention must be made of the book's translator, Christopher Andrews, for preserving the cadences of Posadas's prose without sacrificing her rich nuances. *

Katy Munger is working on her 10th crime novel.