By Patrick deWitt (Ecco, 244 pages, $25.99.)
Cathleen Schine, Curtis Sittenfeld and Elinor Lipman have led a pack of novelists writing contemporary spins on the Jane Austen-style comedy of manners. “French Exit” initially seems to be in that vein, since it’s hilarious and it’s about the travails of people with more money than sense.
It turns out, though, that deWitt — who bills his delightful novel as a “tragedy of manners” — owes more to Edith Wharton than Austen. In his book, as in Wharton’s, New Yorkers’ wit and elaborate manners cannot hide the searing depth of their pain. They’re widowed Frances Price and her overage-adolescent son, Malcolm, who, on the verge of bankruptcy, escape to Paris.
DeWitt’s characters behave with the precision and affectlessness of the people in Wes Anderson films, as when Malcolm meets an heiress named Susan while attempting a theft: “She approached and asked if he was, as it appeared, stealing her father’s watch. He admitted he was, then asked her on a date. She said she was thinking of screaming and he asked her to hold her horses and she did hold them.”
Whether they’ll end up together is one of many questions answered in a borrowed apartment that accommodates a screwball farce-worthy cast of characters, including a crabby wine dealer, a private detective, a medium, an unorthodox doctor, an otherworldly cat, Susan’s belligerent fiancé and the actual owner of the apartment, who would just like to find somewhere to put down her martini glass. DeWitt is aiming for farce and to say something about characters who cannot get out of their own way, and he achieves both with élan.
By T. Jefferson Parker. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $27.)
If you’re a Michael Connelly fan who can’t wait for his next book (“Dark Sacred Night” hits stores in October), “Swift Vengeance” could tide you over.
Parker may not be quite as well known or skilled a wordsmith as Connelly but he’s also a former reporter who writes bestselling procedurals about a crabby Southern California private investigator (actually, Parker shifted to novels several years before Connelly did). Both go hard on plot, with little room for character development or subtlety. A sidekick in several Parker novels is named Burt Short, for instance, and, just in case his name didn’t clue you that he’s small in stature, “Vengeance” reminds us at least seven times.
There’s also vague Islamophobia in Parker’s collection of Saudi and Syrian suspects, every one of whom is defined by the violent events of their lives, but the man knows how to keep the pages turning. Investigator Roland Ford’s client has been threatened with beheading, possibly in retaliation for her part in the drone killing of civilians in Aleppo. Parker keeps quite a few balls in the air, skillfully steering us toward and away from a batch of possible killers while maintaining a twisty, relentless pace. As a result, his “Vengeance” is swift, indeed.