In keeping with Book World's m.o., the mysteries reviewed here were chosen from about 30 titles due out in May. Sometimes an author all but demands to be reviewed: Anne Perry and Katherine V. Forrest are venerated vets, and Boris Akunin is a newcomer (to English, anyway) with a hot reputation. And I usually try to find a sleeper, especially one from a small publisher; this time it was Capra Press, out of Santa Barbara, Calif., with Richard Barre's Echo Bay. After starting and dropping one book (when the author called an Englishman's undergarment in the year 1919 a "T-shirt," he persuaded me he wasn't hip to his period), I switched to A Hard Ticket Home because its author, David Housewright, has won an Edgar. Though its origins may have been fairly accidental, this particular batch turned out to be quite good. Five books, each from a different author and publisher, and four of them smartly entertaining.
Precious Cargo in Victorian London
The Shifting Tide (Ballantine, $25.95), by Anne Perry, serves up several murders, but it's more novel of manners than mystery. And English manners in the year 1863 were shabby vis-a-vis prostitutes. The novel's ostensible hero is William Monk, ex-policeman turned freelance investigator, who hires himself out to find a cargo of ivory stolen from a ship anchored in the Thames. But it's really his wife, Hester, who holds the reader's interest. Despite the obloquy her work brings, she devotes herself to running an informal hospital for sick and injured ladies of the evening who can't pay for regular treatment. Although an outbreak of bubonic plague taxes Hester's powers, her most difficult task is not treating the unfortunates who come her way, but raising money among rich and titled folks who would rather send alms to far-off Africans than acknowledge the raw presence of harlotry in their laced-up world.
Perry is equally adept at evoking Scuff, the wary street urchin who helps Monk maneuver through the tough demimonde of the Thames waterway, and Mrs. Ballinger, the disapproving mother of a socially prominent volunteer at the hospital. Perry allots each character his or her rightful dialect, and her ear is acute (once or twice, a character utters noble sentiments that sound as if they escaped from an MGM costume drama, but even this is probably true to the type of the Victorian do-gooder). The Shifting Tide paints an artful portrait of a strictly divided milieu.
The Unusual Suspects
Like author, like characters: Boris Akunin, said to be one of Russia's most popular novelists, is actually a Georgian named Grigory Chkhartishvili and a man of the world -- the world of mysteries, that is. His newly translated novel, Murder on the Leviathan (Random House, $21.95), pays homage to three of the genre's giants: Agatha Christie for its passel of cosmopolitan murder suspects, confined to a small space (the cruise ship Leviathan) and then unmasked as Not Who They Appear to Be; Wilkie Collins for its exotic backstory of a fabulous Indian treasure and the shawl with which it is linked; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for its detective's ability to fill in a character's background by noticing what is lost on less keen-eyed observers.
Despite the title, most of the murders took place shortly before the Leviathan left France for the Far East in the year 1878. In the Paris mansion of Lord Littleby, noted collector of Oriental art, 10 bodies were found: nine members of the household staff, all dead by lethal injection; and that of his lordship himself, from a blow to the head. Missing are a golden idol and that shawl. The most promising clue is the medallion found clutched in Littleby's hand: a badge worn by first-class passengers on the Leviathan to differentiate themselves from their on-board inferiors. Operating on the assumption that the murderer will be a return-tripper minus such an insignia, French police commissioner Gustave Gauche goes along for the ride.
Although he is not a bumbler on the order of Conan Doyle's Lestrade, the cocky Gauche is repeatedly outdetected by a fellow traveler, a Russian diplomat named Erast Fandorin, who previously appeared in Akunin's The Winter Queen. With a cast of eccentrics, a plot bristling with surprises, some toying with the national and racial stereotypes to which 19th-century Europeans were prone, and a stylish translation by Andrew Bromfield, this is a novel that does Christie, Collins and Conan Doyle proud.
Cold-blooded Murder in a Hot Clime
Katherine V. Forrest's Hancock Park (Berkley Prime Crime, $22.95) is a procedural on two levels. Not only does Forrest lay out the steps by which police detectives investigate a killing; she does so by way of her characters' testimony at the ensuing murder trial. The result is a mystery in which the answer to every question has weight, every facial expression has significance and the reader gets caught up in both a puzzle and a welter of strategizing by attorneys and witnesses.
The victim is Victoria Talbot, shot dead at home, in the affluent section of Los Angeles that gives the book its title. She was one of those wives who, faced with an alcoholic, abusive husband, spends years mopping up after him -- until finally she snaps and files for divorce. Naturally, her ex-husband, the abuser himself, is the chief suspect, but all the evidence linking him with the crime is circumstantial. And, as detective Kate Delafield learns, the case has some peculiar aspects, notably the coroner's finding that several minutes after the first bullet killed Victoria, another was fired into her corpse. The Talbots' grown son adored his mother, but their two daughters resented her for having failed to protect them from their father. Could one of them have lashed out at their mother instead of the man who made their childhoods miserable?
A subplot involves Kate's estrangement from her female lover, angry at Kate for ignoring her long-lost niece, a 16-year-old biological female who is quite sure she was meant to be a boy. Solving the case calls for some wild leaps of intuition on Kate's part, but Forrest's concentration on the nuances of interviewing and courtroom jousting makes for an engaging novel that could double as a textbook in criminal procedure.
Big Money Meets Bad Blood
Richard Barre's Echo Bay (Capra, $25.95) has an unusual setting for a mystery, Lake Tahoe, and an offbeat MacGuffin: Who or what is inside the steamship Constance, which has lain on the lake bottom since being scuttled by its late owner in 1940?
Not that the daughter of that owner, Catherine Mulvhill, frames her resistance to raising the vessel in such fraught terms. Her stance, which she can back up with a fortune estimated at half a billion bucks, is simply that her dad's wish for the Constance to R.I.P.U. (rest in peace underwater) should be honored. On the other side are boosters for whom a salvaged Constance would bring tourists and a boost to the local economy. Fronting for them is our hero, Shawn Rainey, a former local boy who has been blackmailed into coming home by the stepfather of his two kids. Unless Shawn uses his charm, courage and fame (he was an Olympic-level skier until an accident on the slopes ended his career) to put the up-with-the-Constance campaign across, he may never see those kids again.
This is promising material, and Richard Barre does well with it, though his prose takes a bit of getting used to. It's terse and elliptical -- at times he seems to be hoarding articles and conjunctions as if they were redeemable coupons -- but also capable of striking effects, as when he describes Tahoe as "that old dowager, blue heaven one minute, all slate wrath the next." Shawn has his own secrets to protect, and his realization that he must sacrifice these for the information he needs to solve the mystery adds yet another novel element to a book with more than its share.
Twin City Murder
A Hard Ticket Home, by David Housewright (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95), also has a distinctive premise. Twin Cities sleuth Rushmore Mackenzie agrees to find a long-missing young woman because she might be persuaded to donate a kidney to her sister, who is otherwise sure to die. Not long after Mackenzie tracks down the grown-up runaway, she is found dead, tortured and mutilated by a sadistic killer. Then Mackenzie discovers that he is the target of would-be assassins, who may or may not be connected with a club formed by some of Minnesota's most successful entrepreneurs.
Housewright has imbued Mackenzie with some original traits -- for one thing, he is so rich that he refuses to charge his clients -- but A Hard Ticket Home is pretty standard tough-gumshoe-as-loner fare, not helped by pedestrian writing and heavy doses of wish-fulfillment. (Mackenzie is catnip to females and amazing with his dukes.) Nor does the plot make a lot of sense. "It really was a coincidence," says Mackenzie near the end about the nexus between two important plot strands.
Well, thanks a lot. *
Dennis Drabelle is mysteries editor of Book World.