Collateral Damage

The word "cleave" contradicts itself. It means one thing, to cling, and its opposite, to separate. I'm not entirely sure why Zoe Boehm, the London-based private detective in Mick Herron's The Last Voice You Hear (Carroll & Graf, $25), mulls over this tidbit, but her interest reflects the author's easygoing approach to mystery-writing. This is a novel with room for observations about the psychology of living alone, the hard work of searching for a mate when you're in your forties, and the oddity of certain words.

Not that The Last Voice You Hear wants for plot. Hired to investigate the death of 43-year-old secretary Caroline Daniels beneath the wheels of a subway train, Zoe -- herself almost the same age, divorced and waiting to hear if a lump in her breast is cancerous -- wants very much to question Caroline's last boyfriend, who has gone AWOL. Nor can Zoe shake the feeling that something is fishy about another recent death, the fall from a rooftop of an adolescent thief with whom she had a run-in as a cop a few years back. And she notices similarities between Caroline's death and that of another no-longer-young but not-quite-old single woman whose corpse was found in the drainage ditch into which she had fallen (or was she pushed?). Despite having all these strands to pull together, not to mention a long, suspenseful chase to get Zoe through, Mick Herron finds his characters -- and the world itself -- so engrossing that he periodically lets the book stray off course.

This reader didn't mind a bit. With its vivid descriptions (the texture of Zoe's troubled sleep is compared to "hunting somebody through a viciously thorned maze") and unexpected clues, notably the Motown records of which the killer is fond, The Last Voice You Hear is stylish and engaging.

Lost Youth

It's 1968, and two brothers are investigating what happened to Janelle Vonn: Nick Becker, a cop in Orange County, Calif., and Andy Becker, a reporter for a local newspaper. Two more Becker boys knew her: Clay, recently killed in Vietnam, and David, whose drive-in Presbyterian church she attended. But then Janelle seems to have known just about everybody living in or visiting Orange County, including LSD-using guru Timothy Leary (who, of course, was a real person); pop-singer Jesse Black and right-wing politician Roger Stoltz (both of whom are fictional); and the narcotics unit of the county sheriff's office, for which she was an informer. In addition, those who weren't personally acquainted with her would have recognized her -- she'd been her town's reigning beauty queen until a bare-it-all appearance in Playboy got her dethroned. Who killed and then beheaded Janelle is the question driving T. Jefferson Parker's California Girl (Morrow, $24.95).

I'm a fan of Parker's, and especially of his early novel Laguna Heat, but this is a flat performance. By parceling out the point of view among the three surviving brothers, he seems to have unwittingly deprived his story of an emotional center. California Girl is left with all the elements of a thriller but the thrills.

The Fall Guy and His Rescuer

At the outset of Jeffrey Cruikshank's crackling Murder at the B-School (Mysterious, $24.95), Harvard business professor Wim Vermeer and Boston police captain Barbara Brouillard are almost adversaries. A student named Eric MacInnes, the handsome, charming, gay scion of an old and wealthy family, has been found murdered in an on-campus Jacuzzi. Vermeer has been enlisted to protect the university's reputation, and Brouillard is handling the investigation. But soon their interests begin to merge: Someone appears to be setting up Vermeer to take a fall, the MacInneses are jerking him around, Harvard is looking the other way, and Brouillard has a welcome tendency to show up just when Vermeer needs gun-wielding help.

This material may ring familiar -- domineering family dynasties are the common currency of American crime fiction these days -- but Cruikshank freshens it up a bit, sprinkling in B-school lore and placing his showdown on the little-known Caribbean island of Vieques. And the growing rapport between Brouillard and Vermeer (he's a remote descendant of the great Dutch painter) is a pleasure to watch. At the end, when Vermeer acknowledges that his regard for Brouillard is more than professional, she cagily responds: "Well, you're not hearing yes, Wim, and you're not hearing no." I'm hearing series-in-the-making, and I'm all for it.

Theater of the Absurd

Isaac Adamson's Kinki Lullaby (Dark Alley; paperback, $13.95) illuminates an ancient and little-known art form: Bunraku, Japanese drama featuring puppets four feet high. Billy Chaka, the first-person narrator, has been given an all-expenses-paid trip from Cleveland to Osaka, site of the National Bunraku Theater, to pick up an award for a magazine article on the subject he wrote several years ago (and barely remembers). This arrangement sounds too good to be true, and it is. Turns out the real purpose of the trip is to persuade Chaka to intervene in a Bunraku scandal. Tetsuo Oyamada, the brilliant young puppeteer around whom Billy built his article, has been dismissed from the national company after allegedly beating up a co-worker. Tetsuo's father begs Billy to find out exactly what happened and, if possible, bring Tetsuo back into the fold.

There's much more to the story, including a mystery woman obsessed with a new, postmodern version of Bunraku and a Westerner found murdered with Billy's name tag in his possession, but the most compelling passages of Kinki Lullaby have to do with Bunraku itself. According to one of Billy's sources, "it was a physically demanding art, one requiring the strength of a sumo wrestler and the grace of a geisha. Though there were three puppeteers in a team, as chief manipulator the omo-zukai supported the full weight of the puppet throughout most of the performance. What made it even more grueling was that, in order for the puppets to be seen above the horizontal partition used to hide the lower half of the puppeteers' bodies, the chief manipulator had to perform in eight- to eleven-inch clogs made from wood and straw. And because Bunraku developed as a working-class entertainment, the dramas were full of intricately choreographed fisticuffs, swordplay, and full-out battle scenes. At the end of a performance the puppeteers were exhausted and drenched in sweat."

With a shifty plot, shadowy settings, oddball characters and dollops of Bunraku lore sprinkled throughout, Kinki Lullaby is unfailingly entertaining -- and kinki to boot.

Elephant Walk Turned Wild

Larry Beinhart's The Librarian is a publication of Nation Books (paperback, $15.95), and as you might expect from its association with that magazine, the novel slants leftward. The protagonist, David Goldberg, has gone to work as a librarian for Alan Stowe, an aged tycoon who belongs to the Golden Elephants, a cabal of right-wing plutocrats hell-bent on maintaining the incumbent president in office. At the Stowe estate, David flirts with a frequent guest, Niobe Morgan, the wife of a Stowe henchman. Niobe claims to be a closet supporter of Anne Lynn Murphy, whom fate (in the form of plane crash that took out a couple of more promising candidates) has made the Democratic nominee for president. Can David can trust Niobe to give him the inside help he will need to thwart an Elephantine plot to steal the election?

Beinhart mixes the right amounts of humor, violence and politics to make his fable work. Yes, he throws in the occasional political diatribe, but it never goes on too long, and there's usually another narrative jolt waiting on the other side. The writing is breezy, with occasional bursts of inspiration, as when David rates a kiss from Niobe "as good as a sentence by Hemingway, back when he was good." The plotters' scheme centers on hanky panky in the electoral college, and paranoid Democrats may be thankful for one thing: Almost by definition, Republicans are unlikely to read books put out by the Nation and thus may not think to crib from this one. *

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor, and mysteries editor, of Book World.