Mysteries: Agoraphobic sleuth pushes limits for a friend

smacknee@mcclatchy.comApril 13, 2013 

The Perfect Ghost, by Linda Barnes. Minotaur. 304 pages.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It kept me up past bedtime many a night. I’ve reached overload on the gimmicky sleuths, so I cringe on reading a book jacket where the hero only sees black-and-white, has a photographic memory, etc., but agoraphobic sleuth Em Moore is so well done that I was hooked on the first page.

She’s part of a ghostwriting team, and she addresses the entire book to her writing partner, Teddy, who has died in a traffic accident before the book begins. There’s something fascinating in the way she describes to this absent person how she manages to brave public transportation and travel farther and farther afield to try to finish the book they were working on when he died.

The book is a ghosted “autobiography” of a star director who lives and works in a family enclave on Cape Cod. Em ends up moving there while she continues interviewing, writing and searching for a missing interview tape that appears to contain a blockbuster revelation.

There Was an Old Woman, by Hallie Ephron. William Morrow. 293 pages.

A New York City museum curator is called away when her mother is hospitalized and is puzzled to find her childhood home looking like something out of “Hoarders”: broken lawn chairs as living room furniture, trash spilling out of bags and piles of newspapers everywhere. As Evie Ferrante and her sister work through the issues around their alcoholic mother’s sudden decline, they find some alarming paperwork and unexplained cash in her house and notice some odd behavior from neighbors.

You might call this a hyperlocal mystery, low on exotic scenery and larger-than-life villains, but in focusing on one small neighborhood in transition, it manages to push some emotional buttons as it shows vulnerable elderly people being victimized in a quite plausible way. I was really scared for these old folks in a way that I never am for jet-setting superspies. Nice work, Hallie Ephron.

The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani. Harper. 293 pages.

Mysteries set in a different culture, like the popular Scandinavian school, can be translated into English but will always have a bit of a “through-the-looking-glass” feel as detectives and suspects act in ways not quite our own. This mystery, written originally in Hebrew, brings us Israeli detective Avraham Avraham. Confronted with a worried mother who sits across from him to report that her teenage son is missing, he engages in a rambling attempt to reassure her and sends her home to wait. Violent crime, after all, is rare in his culture.

When the boy fails to turn up on his own, Avraham belatedly starts up the missing-persons machinery, his irritation at having guessed wrong vying with his nervousness about the office politics surrounding the case. This distracts him from a neighbor who seems to be unnaturally interested in the investigation. In fact, missed cues seem to be a theme overall.


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