The Unmelting Pot

Anyone afraid that American culture is turning homogenized and denatured need only visit the vital, layered immigrant neighborhoods in the "archipelago" -- Reggie Nadelson's word -- of New York City. In Nadelson's Disturbed Earth (Walker, $24), the fifth of her vibrant Artie Cohen mysteries, the Russian section of Brooklyn, Brighton Beach, is "a weird slice out of the former Soviet Union." The place "had become a kind of theme park with stuff in the shops -- dresses with glitter, big furs, fancy china -- you probably couldn't even find in Moscow anymore." There are the borscht joints, the sweet-tea rooms, the Hello Gorgeous Beauty Salon.

There are also epidemic Russian-style gangsterism and violent crime, which are Cohen's preoccupations as an NYPD detective working on crimes against children. The bloody clothes and sneakers of a child are discovered on the beach at Coney Island, though no body turns up immediately. Cohen is haunted by one of his old, unsolved cases in which a little girl's body was discovered with her feet cut off, and he fears that the psychopath responsible may have resurfaced.

Cohen's boss is Sonny Lippert, whose work "on cases connected with children was what made [him] nuts. It put him out on a fragile emotional limb, it caused his divorce, it made him febrile." Cohen and Lippert work in a world where "kids were big business; they were cheap. . . . And not just in Asia or some remote part of Africa where they stole children to be used as soldiers or sex slaves. In Eastern Europe you could buy a kid for sex for less than you could rent a car."

Cohen isn't quite the walking train wreck that Lippert is, but he shows the wear and tear of an obsessive cop's life. Born in Russia, Cohen left Moscow at 14, made it to New York via Israel, and with his brains, five languages and penchant for order, soon landed at NYPD. Now he keeps company with steady, decent, unglamorous Maxine Crabbe, a Sept. 11 widow with two kids. He sees himself and Maxine as no more than "friends who fell into bed together once in a while." But Maxine wants more, and just as Cohen is breathing down a murderer's neck, she provokes a crisis by saying so.

The amazing Nadelson -- she gets a jacket blurb from Salman Rushdie, no less -- can't write a character who doesn't charge off the page. Billy Farone is Cohen's godson, a strange, beautiful boy as passionate about fishing as Cohen is about locking up dangerous people, and who himself disappears. Businessman Tolya Sverdloff, son of a famous Moscow actor, "knew his way around high culture, but he played the part of an international hood." If you think capitalism is rough in, say, Houston, get this: Business rivals once kidnapped Sverdloff's teenage daughter, locked her in a closet for a week, and cut off her finger. He tells Cohen, "They sent her back, but it's not her."

Elem Zeitser, a strange, sadistic gangster who's having an affair with Cohen's cousin Genia, is an admirer of Emerson and Emily Dickinson. Cohen's funny pal Dubi is a Beatles fanatic with keen insights about immigrant assimilation -- and about why some immigrants turn around and head back home. "Some melting pot, they say; they just melt you down until you turn into American. No culture. No nothing. Just this crazy religion where they believe in the Bible as fact like it's the telephone book."

The solution to the murder in Disturbed Earth is heartbreakingly plausible. And Nadelson's sublimely funny and disturbing final three words -- "She misses you" -- will leave readers eager for Artie Cohen installment number six.

Bruised and Battered In some ways, The River House, by Margaret Leroy (Little, Brown, $23.95), reads like a suspense novel written by Richard Yates. Leroy handles marriage and domestic life with the same graceful, precise, rueful style as the late novelist did, though with a warmer, more hopeful intelligence.

Ginnie Holmes, 46, a suburban London therapist who works with abused children, is in a routine, sexless marriage to a semiotics professor. She sees her life with her self-absorbed husband and two fractious teenaged daughters as "domestic, anxious, enmeshed." She has lost the "shiny, hopefulness [she] used to have." When Ginnie meets Will Hampden, a married police detective similarly unhappy but committed to caring for his autistic son, she and Will fall into an affair in an abandoned boathouse by the Thames. Ginnie accepts the limitations of the relationship -- occasional tenderness and passion are enough -- and reminds herself that "a man who likes women a lot has liked a lot of women."

Then a young woman is found strangled by the river. Horrified, Ginnie realizes that a man she saw from the boathouse window dashing through the woods is probably the killer. It is the victim's husband, a known batterer whom the police suspect but can't charge without evidence. There's no way Ginnie can explain her presence in the boathouse, however, withot exposing her affair, risking her job, angering Will, and shattering the family she realizes she is bound up with morally and practically.

Leroy elucidates Ginnie's moral conundrum beautifully. Although there is never much doubt as to what Ginnie will do, it's how she does it that provides considerable suspense.

Field of Stoned Dreams

A Venom Beneath the Skin (Kate's Mystery Books/Justin, Charles, $24.95), Marcos M. Villatoro's neat, Hitchcockian thriller featuring FBI agent Romilia Chacon is mainly about vicious drug traffickers. But it also sheds light on the demand side of the U.S. illegal drug trade. Chacon is a widowed West L.A. soccer mom living uncomfortably among upper-middle-class women who stand on the sidelines at matches comparing notes on their lives of "multi-tasking." One afternoon, she reflects that "there was, within the radius of the three soccer fields we stood in, no doubt a good, I don't know, twelve thousand dollars' worth of coke, grass, meth, ice, heroin, all tucked in purses, pocketbooks, in folded plastic liners under baseball caps." These moms and their hubbies are why the drug trade exists.

A Venom Beneath the Skin is the third Chacon thriller, and it briefly brings back aging, weary FBI Agent Chip Pierce. He is smitten with the 30-year-old Chacon, who is as knockout gorgeous as she is super-competent. Pierce, however, is soon killed while investigating an explosion at a crack house. The autopsy shows he was rendered semi-conscious by Guatemalan frog venom and then beaten to death with his own prosthetic leg. The prime suspect is drug lord Tekun Uman, who is also nuts about Chacon -- each saved the other's life on an earlier occasion -- and he may have become murderously jealous. Tekun is one sexy hunk, who listens to Glenn Gould and reads Garcia Marquez. In a less civilized frame of mind, he once emasculated -- not figuratively -- an FBI narc.

Shaky in the plausibility department -- it's unclear why the FBI assigned the far from objective Chacon to this case -- the story is still fun to follow as it lurches from L.A. to Tijuana to San Francisco. Villatoro is plainly as gaga over the gutsy, winsome Chacon as several men in the story are. Let's hope there are real FBI agents as brilliant as she is, if more careful with their emotional attachments.

Robbing for Relics

Also short on believability is Kathy Reichs's Cross Bones (Scribner, $25.95), which seems to be trying to cash in on the Da Vinci Code sweepstakes. It has to do with smuggled antiquities in Montreal and grave-robbing in the Holy Land. The Holy Family shows up too -- or at least their remaining bits and pieces do. The next step in U.S. publishing surely will be for a thriller writer to clone them all and arrange for a sit-down with Larry King. ("Mary, what's the real low-down on the Annunciation?")

Reichs's hyperactive (Bare Bones, Grave Secrets et al.) forensic archaeologist, Temperance Brennan, joins up with Montreal police dick Andrew Ryan, her sometime squeeze, to investigate the stabbing death of an importer of religious paraphernalia. A stolen skeleton surfaces -- but then vanishes again -- and its origins are traced to Masada, site of the Jewish martyrdom at Roman hands. If the skeleton is who Brennan thinks it might be, Christian belief could go up in a puff of smoke. Diabolical Muslims may be behind it all.

Forensic anthropologist Reichs's research is great in quantity. But though often interesting, the historical data are frequently undermined by characterizations that are -- let's be attentive to the setting -- unleavened, and by unintentionally hilarious repartee between Brennan and Ryan. When Brennan goes to Tel Aviv and produces some mitochondrial-DNA reports that "could be bigger than either of us imagined," altering world history, Ryan yelps, "Lay it on me." Brennan thinks Ryan is hot stuff, but there must be something about him we're not being told.

Tea and Critiques

Peter Lovesey's The Circle (SOHO, $24) is just as implausible, but it doesn't matter because he's just kidding. And a delightful kidder Lovesey is in this, his 29th jaunty jape of a mystery.

Lovesey's cigar-chomping Inspector Henrietta Mallin turns up midway in the proceedings, but the cast of mostly harmless and sometimes shrewd English eccentrics provides much of the fun. Most are members of the Chichester Writers' Circle who get together to critique one another's fantasy novels, gardening books, romances, family histories and "erotic poetry." Van driver Bob Naylor is an easygoing widower and sensitive step-dad who can produce bawdy verses for any occasion. He's insecure about his lowbrow tastes and shyly joins the writers' group just as its popular chairman, Maurice McDade, is charged with the murder of a vanity press publisher who tried to con at least one of their group. They resolve to find the killer and free McDade.

This is all lighter than air and often wonderfully funny. Lovesey's parodies of the writers' work feel accurate, but they aren't mean. He likes these groups and their ardent plodders. We cheer for the lonely Naylor and a 45-ish Circle member to get together. When they first meet, he sees that she is "pretty in a way that younger women can't be, with creases that promised to be laughter lines asking to be exercised."

Each chapter starts with an amusing epigraph, often on writers and writing. One of the best -- most mordant, anyway -- is Ralph Richardson's remark when asked to appear on a charity program in support of imprisoned writers. "No," said the actor, "on the whole I think all writers should be in prison." *

Richard Lipez writes detective novels under the name Richard Stevenson.