Fiction

A House to Let, by Charles Dickens with Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Anne Procter (Hesperus, $12). Talk about collaborations: This haunting little tale is the product of some of Victorian England's finest fictionistas. When her physician prescribes "a little change of air and scene," a woman with the very Dickensian name of Sophonisba takes up residence in London. "I am a single old woman," she says. "I should say at once, without being at all afraid of the name, I am an old maid; only that I am older than the phrase would express. The time was when I had my love trouble, but it is long and long ago." She's followed to London by her longtime servant, Trottle, and equally longtime suitor, Jabez Jarber. But she has other matters on her mind; at her breakfast table one morning, she looks at the vacant house across the way when "all at once -- in the first-floor window on my right, down in a low corner, at a hole in a blind or shutter -- I found that I was looking at a secret eye. The reflection of my fire may have touched it and made it shine; but, I saw it shine and vanish." And yet she never sees a single soul enter or leave the house." Trottle and Jarber are dispatched to investigate. Sophonisba's story of "a house's haunting a spirit" is part of the publisher's mission to bring "unjustly neglected or simply little known works" by the stars of English literature back to the attention of the reading public. The Hesperus catalog (www.hesperuspress.com/catalogue/default.asp) is worth a look, especially if you're in search of off-the-beaten-path classics.

The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard (Picador, $14). The author of The Transit of Venus returns with another prizewinner, a story about love and reconnection in the topsy-turvy days after World War II. Aldred Leith, a war hero in his thirties, arrives in occupied Japan to research a book; instead he befriends Helen, the 17-year-old daughter of an unpleasant Australian military man, and her dying brother, Ben. The Great Fire, which won the National Book Award, follows Aldred and Helen as they fall in love, separate and reunite through time and across 10,000 miles. It also traces the meandering fortunes of Leith's friend Peter Exley, an interrogator of war criminals in Hong Kong, a man afflicted in another way by the war, "two years into peace and bored to death by it. . . . . through mornings and long afternoons, Peter Exley explored a heap of files and despaired of justice."

The King in the Tree, by Steven Millhauser (Vintage, $12). Three new novellas from the author of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, Edwin Mullhouse and others. Although it has its share of brilliant moonlit nights, this trio of tales is not as steeped in enchantment as Millhauser's previous books. Instead of automatons, Inferno-like amusement parks and flying carpets, The King in the Tree offers up three stories of betrayal: a modern woman scorned, Don Juan seduced by love, and (in the title piece) King Mark cuckolded by his queen, Ysolt, and his nephew, Tristan. Mark's faithful courtier Thomas comes across as a sometimes sympathetic, sometimes angry narrator of the adulterous affair: "Sometimes a strange thought comes: to murder the lovers in their sleep, to destroy this ugly plague of love that causes nothing but ruin and despair."

Stella Descending, by Linn Ullmann, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland (Anchor, $13). The woman at the center of Linn Ullmann's second novel (the first was Before You Sleep) takes the plunge -- literally. But was her fatal fall from the roof of her apartment building an accident, or was she pushed by her ne'er-do-well husband, Martin? Witnesses can't agree. "They were like two dolls up there on the roof," one recalls, "he with his Bible-black locks, she in a yellow-and-red dress. Back and forth along the edge. Swaying back and forth. I shouted at them to get down from there. There are plenty of ways to die without landing on other people's heads. As a pedestrian you ought to be insured against that sort of thing." As that quote suggests, this is a spooky novel with unexpected bursts of humor. Ullmann unravels Stella's story, and the truth about her demise, by teasing out the thoughts and reminiscences of people close to the dead woman: an octogenarian friend who has far less reason to live than Stella did, her older daughter, Amanda, and others. Even the victim (or was she?) weighs in from beyond the grave. Only Martin, murderous or innocent, remains silent.

-- Jennifer Howard