MYSTERY ROUNDUP: Stories that thrill and confound

  • Article by: CAROLE E. BARROWMAN / SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: December 15, 2012 - 2:50 PM

From New York to Jamaica to Venice, this new crop of mysteries will baffle, confound and keep you up at night.

Gillian Royes, "The Man Who Turned Both Cheeks"

During the 1930s, S.S. Van Dine wrote mysteries featuring Philo Vance, an aristocratic New York detective with a penchant for fencing and a passion for art. Vance was erudite and elusive, handsome but a bit dyspeptic. Years ago, when I first read of the enigmatic and philosophical, deathly pale and disturbingly handsome aristocratic New York FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast, I thought he was Vance reincarnated but far better written.

"Two Graves" (Grand Central, 480 pages, $26.99), Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's latest featuring Agent Pendergast, begins with a kidnapping and a breathless cross-country pursuit that in most thrillers would be the gut-wrenching finale; instead, in Preston and Child's hands, this chase starts Pendergast on a hunt from New York to South America. Even if you've read the 11 books in this terrific series, I don't think you'll see this narrative arc coming.

Even as Preston and Child maintain this breakneck pace, their writing never gets thin. They are masters at giving details freight: "The vast and rambling mansion was cloaked in nostalgic silence, its resident murderers ... and social deviants caught up in reveries of Christmases past: of presents received ... of presents inflicted."

Shadrack Meyers, the "unofficial sheriff and a praying man" in Gillian Royes' "The Man Who Turned Both Cheeks" (Atria Books, 449 pages, $15), is a character as unique as Pendergast, but his opposite in race and class. Shad is a poor man with "skin as dark as midnight." He tends bar in Largo Bay, a "forgotten dot on the Northeastern end of Jamaica," in a community that sups the volatile prejudices that come from mixing religious intolerance, poverty and fear.

"Men talk all kinds of foolishness in bars," admonishes Shad, but when the talk turns to "batty men," to homosexuality and hate, Shad finds the courage to rise above his own prejudices and his community's deeply ingrained homophobia.

I was impressed with Royes' debut, "The Goat Woman of Largo Bay," and even more so with this second novel. Royes understands Jamaican culture, and with Shad's distinctive character, she's found a way to honor and challenge it. Royes charges this controversial subject head-on and she does so without losing the pacing and the clever mystification necessary for a good story.

While Shad wrestles with his homophobia, he also fights to protect his friends and their involvement in a resort deal that may change the landscape of his homeland. In a subplot that is as compelling as the main one, Shad juggles the demands of fatherhood and the pressures of his wife's traditions with a child developing special needs. Shad may carry dirt from his grandmother's grave to ward off demons, but he is savvy enough to know you "watch your back in Largo."

Issues of racial identity cling like kudzu to the bold Gothic narrative in Attica Locke's "The Cutting Season" (Harper, 400 pages, $25.99), set in 2009 Louisiana. Caren Gray, a descendant of slaves, is "rootless and unsure of where she belongs," so, "for better or for worse," she manages the Belle Vie plantation.

Belle Vie has been "restored to its original antebellum glory," historical re-enactments, horrible slave quarters and all. But when a migrant worker on the bordering sugar cane field is murdered, Caren's investigation sweeps her into the swirling mists of her family's enslaved past in order to prevent a corporate takeover of the plantation.

Locke explores with psychological authenticity how a person's racial identity can be complicated, multifaceted and burdened with contradictions that can't easily be categorized as black or white (Caren's surname is Gray). Her characters are struggling to find their identities in a place echoing with the shackles of their ancestors. It isn't an imaginative stretch to see Belle Vie as America trying to reconcile with a past that can no longer be romanticized or fully despairing.

"They were, each of them, connected across time," writes Locke, "each navigating a life that had been shaped by the raw power of labor," and "their relationships built ... on river silt, thin, shape-shifting, their family lives a work of improvisational art, crafted from whatever was at hand."

In T. Frank Muir's U.S. debut, "Hand for Hand" (Soho Press, $25), American readers are introduced to St. Andrew's Andy Gilchrist, a flawed hard-drinking Scottish copper worthy to join the ranks of Rebus, Skinner and Laidlaw. This banter-packed procedural opens with a killer leaving mutilated body parts with "cryptic clues" on various holes at St. Andrew's Old Course. Deciphering them turns the investigation personal for Gilchrist, leading him to a Robert Burns poem and then on a chase to save his fractured family, on which he barelyhas a grip.

Muir's humor is dark and the settings dour. While Gilchrist is observing "the murky waters" of the River Clyde, I realized this "dirt-caked beast" was Gilchrist's guilt-laden psyche awash in self-loathing and alcohol. Muir's imagery is hard-boiled but his themes are Calvinism laid bare.

Many lovely things are laid bare in Tasha Alexander's "Death in the Floating City" (Minotaur, 320 pages, 24.99), including the ornate palazzos and the lavish bordellos of 19th-century Venice, which "like Paris has a light all its own." Lady Emily, the heroine of Alexander's rousing romantic series, is a spirited character and Alexander writes with a keen eye for the most intriguing period detail to fashion her narrative. In this one, she's crafted an endearing star-crossed love story within the rich layers of her 19th-century mystery.

Venice is the city of Titian and Bellini, but it's Emma Callum, the mean girl of Lady Emily's youth, who draws Lady Emily and her husband, Colin, "the image of Adonis' better-looking brother," to the city of more than "a hundred separate islands." Emma's husband has fled their palazzo and their marriage, leaving her to cope with the murder of her father-in-law and a mystery that sends Lady Emily gondoliering around Venice seeking the provenance of a ring "missing for an untold number of centuries" that was found clutched in the dead man's hand.

Carole Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee. She's the co-author of "Hollow Earth," a young-adult fantasy published this year.

  • related content

  • T. Frank Muir, "Hand For Hand"

  • "Two Graves," Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

  • Attica Locke, "The Cutting Season"

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