The Subtleties of Venice

Few detective writers create so vivid, inclusive and convincing a narrative as Donna Leon, the expatriate American with the Venetian heart. Blood from a Stone (Atlantic Monthly, $23) is the 14th novel in her stylish Guido Brunetti series featuring the pugnacious commissario and his small but loyal group of detectives. The time: just before Christmas. The place: Campo Santo Stefano, Venice. American tourists have congregated around a band of vendors selling fake designer-label handbags. Suddenly one of the vendors falls from a gunshot, but the killer disappears without a trace (he has hairy hands, one witness insists).

The vendors, it turns out, are a group of illegal immigrants from Senegal who sell wares without a license and outside normal business hours. The Italian officials periodically arrest them and as regularly set them free to move to another spot to sell their wares. As Brunetti investigates the murder, he confronts his complete ignorance about this and other immigrant populations in Italy: their poverty, their lack of rights and the prejudices of officials. Soon, however, official indifference to the killing changes to aggressive resistance to Brunetti's investigation, when all the medical, computer and interview files disappear into the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs, housed in Rome. But as with all good souls in the detective world, the barriers only increase Commissario Brunetti's tenacity. And when he discovers a cache of diamonds hidden in the dead man's tiny apartment, he is off on a quest that will take him into the world of international jewel trading and gun running.

Leon is a quiet, leisurely storyteller. The investigation limps from clue to clue, slipping off on unexpected tangents, aborted each time it seems ready to achieve some clarity. In the meantime, she moves her characters through the Venetian canals, the webs of international power and the contradictions of domestic social relations to provide a guided tour of Italian culture. And she evokes a Venice filled with the heavy rains, the love of food, the soggy shoes, the old family loyalties and the shifting friendships that shape this at once ancient and modern urban center. From Brunetti's hapless quest for appropriate Christmas gifts to the wayward comments of his two teenage children around the dinner table; from Brunetti's colleague Signorina Elettra and her computer skills to his frustrating confrontations with his boss; from his warm-hearted conversations with his wife, Paola, to his musings on the impossibility of justice, we find evidence of a dysfunctional world paradoxically buoyed by its own mad excesses. In this wonderful addition to one of the most exquisite and subtle detective series ever, Brunetti's realization of the impossibility of altering such a system is matched only by his need to try.

Algerian Nights

Yasmina Khadra (aka Mohammed Moulessehoul, an ex-Algerian army officer now in exile in France) has followed up on his extraordinary Morituri with Double Blank (Toby; paperback, $12.95). Ably translated from the French by Aubrey Botsford, Double Blank again provides a dim view of Algerian political corruption through the jaundiced eyes of Inspector Llob, a policeman (and writer) always in conflict with his superiors. This time the story begins with a visit Llob makes to Ben Ouda, a noted diplomat whom Llob once idolized. Now bloated and aged, Ouda asks the inspector to help him publish a book that will reveal dark secrets about those in power in Algeria. But soon after this meeting, Ouda is decapitated, his head left floating in his bidet. As Llob seeks clues to Ouda's killer, he meets a powerbroker wrapped in bandages after his workshop explodes, an informant killed soon after an encounter with Llob, a killer who promises to blow up himself and Llob with TNT, and a plot to take control of Algeria's long-faltering economy.

Though Khadra's tales pay homage to the crime tradition, he wastes little time on the personal pleasantries or detailed descriptive passages that give local color (and expanded page counts) to most detective novels these days. Llob's family, present in Morituri in brief asides that offered a semblance of human warmth, are now in hiding, dismissed in a sentence along the way. Jump-cuts move us from scene to scene, eliminating the locating shots that provide backdrop in most books. Instead there are the cunning observations: a prostitute who dresses in a chador and wears nothing underneath, for example. And there are the confrontations, which reveal how each plot hides a still more devious one inside it. Barely holding all this together is the brooding Llob, mumbling to himself in one-line remarks thick with portent as he stares at an Algiers "turned into hell": "Her nightfalls are funeral. The slightest rustling is felt as a cry of agony." There is nothing user-friendly about Khadra's writing. But if you want to peek into the dark side of a country in dissolution, there's no finer guide.

Back Home in Minnesota

David Housewright follows up his uneven A Hard Ticket Home with the far more persuasive Tin City (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95). Rushmore "Mac" McKenzie is a former Minneapolis policeman who has retired on the bounty from an earlier case -- except when he offers to help friends with their problems. This time he gets involved with Mr. Mosley, a beekeeper and old friend of his father's, whose bees are dying off at startling rates. The entomologist from the local university who offers her expertise is shot at; when Mosley and Mac try to meet the neighbor who did the shooting, they are threatened. And within days of these incidents, Mosley is killed, Mac's lawyer's wife is raped and Mac himself is suddenly wanted for questioning by the FBI.

With the help of a lifelong buddy in the police department (and a cache of his ever available money), Mac goes underground. Clues lead him to Hilltop, a trailer park (and the "tin city" of the title) nestled quietly just north of Minneapolis. There he meets the lovely Penelope Glass, a songwriter whose simple beauty quickly slips under his protective emotional guard.

Some lovely cadenced writing follows, along with smart narrative moves and bits of unfocused excess. Housewright is at his best when he stays closest to home. It's clear he's a Minnesotan in his bones, so his depiction of everything from beekeeping to the byways of Hilltop embeds us in a location where quiet indiscretions and desires highlight daily life. Mac's dinner with Penelope, his longstanding crush on his buddy's wife and his reminiscences about his father and Mosley are moving and effective. But the author feels a need to thicken the broth with big-city crime (New York City gang wars), national issues (terrorism and a frenzied FBI agent) and more than a showoff's worth of country-western music name-dropping. The result is an amiable and appealing novel that works too hard at being hard-hitting.

Dallas Lowdown

Still River (Thomas Dunne, $23.95) is Harry Hunsicker's debut novel starring the inaptly named Lee Henry Oswald, detective. The river of the title is the Trinity, dribbling muddily through the heart of Dallas, Tex., in the heat of a long summer. Developers hope to turn a section of the river into Trinity Vista, a huge complex of high rises, entertainment venues and profitable rentals. But before they do, there are deals to be made and bodies that get in the way.

The body that most concerns Oswald, or Hank, as he likes to be called, is Charlie Wesson, stepbrother to Vera Drinkwater, a former high school classmate of Hank's. Hank knew Charlie years before, when he used to protect the hapless kid from the local toughs. Now Charlie has disappeared while working on a small real estate deal. Though a longtime addict, he's been clean for 18 months. So when his body is discovered in a condemned crack house, Hank and Vera are both convinced it was not an accident. By this time, too, Hank has been warned off his investigation too many times not to realize he has tapped into something worth his attention.

Meantime, we meet the usual suspects and sidekicks -- two bulky gun-merchants who provide Hank with his artillery and inside bits of information; the dog Hank inherits from his ex; the angry, worn-out cops who are really trying to do a decent job; and Hank's partner and mentor, dying in the hospital, who leaves a vacant office to his niece, Nolan, beautiful and brainy, just arrived from San Antonio. Hunsicker smoothly navigates among these cliches while providing a wonderful view of Dallas itself, a city where "cosmopolitan . . . was a vodka and cranberry cocktail, not a state of mind . . . something you bought." Hank travels across the stretch of the city, crisscrossing freeways and dead-end streets, in neighborhoods black and white, suburban and commercial, self-indulgent and poor. Along the way, Hunsicker leaves some plot business dangling, provides Nolan with a great entrance and then little to do, and litters his chapters with more chases and gunfights than you'll find in a B-Western. But he also provides enough lowdown on Dallas, real estate, fighting techniques and the lives of the ambitious and desperate to make this a compelling debut. *

Paul Skenazy teaches literature and writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author and editor of books on James M. Cain, Maxine Hong Kingston, Arturo Islas and Los Angeles fiction.