Books

Mysteries worth sinking your teeth into

January, as the ubiquitous TV weight-loss commercials remind us, is a time to just shape up. For two months we've been gorging on Halloween candy, tryptophan-loading over Thanksgiving and swilling nog and bubbly into early New Year's Day. We have, to quote the old Book of Common Prayer, "done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us."

So in the spirit of adopting a healthier New Year routine, I offer the literary equivalent of vegetable soup and a lightly dressed salad. No red meat. No added sweeteners. Something satisfying, but not overwhelming.

Take for a good example, Chris Ewan's "The Good Thief's Guide to Paris" (St. Martin's, 245 pages), a frothy omelet flavored with yummy capers. This follow-up to last year's "Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam" brings back Charlie Howard, a mystery writer who spends his spare time -- and supplements his income -- stealing from the rich and tasteful.

This time Charlie has too much wine after a Paris book signing and agrees to show a devoted reader how to break into the guy's own apartment. Bad idea. Turns out the apartment belongs to someone else. And when his favorite fence asks him the next day to break into the same apartment to steal a mediocre painting, and when the real owner of that flat turns up dead at Charlie's place, it just seems like too much coincidence. Ewan's clever plot has only begun to thicken.

Charlie goes on the lam in a fleabag Montmartre hotel. But not for long. There's a Picasso for the taking at a posh gallery. Dodging police, a possible hit man in a Jaguar, and his own agent -- who has never met him in person and knows nothing of his larcenous avocation -- Charlie once again shows himself to be a good, if not great, thief who has provided himself promising material for his own next book.

Charles Todd follows a traditional English recipe for historical whodunit in "A Matter of Justice" (Morrow, 330 pages), the latest in an admirable series featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge.

Todd (a pseudonym for a mother-son team living in Delaware and North Carolina, respectively), effectively uses the haunted Rutledge as the personification of a sense of loss, guilt and malaise that seeped through all levels of British society in the aftermath of World War I.

In "A Matter of Justice," Rutledge travels to bucolic Somerset to investigate the murder of a shady investment adviser who had made enemies enriching himself at the expense of British troops during the Boer War. Rutledge has to sort through a hodgepodge of malevolent rumors, lies and misunderstandings about the dead financier, who was apparently detested by everyone he knew, including his wife.

Still deeply troubled by some of his own decisions as WWI officer in France, Rutledge has to keep watch on his own possibly misplaced sympathies as well as a brimming pool of suspects. He has no easy time separating the easy outcome angry locals demand from the more complicated one that eventually solves the crime. Nor will you.

"The Spanish Game" (St. Martin's, 336 pages) by Charles Cumming is a satisfying tapas plate of intrigue, betrayal and sultry romance set in Madrid and the volatile Basque region.

Former English spy Alex Milius, who debuted in Cumming's "A Spy by Nature," returns in a new professional incarnation as a senior researcher for the Madrid branch of a British bank after being drummed out of MI-6 years earlier following a botched operation.

Alternately paranoid, glib and restless, Alex keeps an eye out for former colleagues he believes may seek revenge for damage caused by his past mistakes. Still, this distraction does not prevent him from starting an affair with his mysterious boss' sexy wife and jumping into a dangerous private mission he hopes will replicate the thrill of his former career.

That yearning for a danger buzz gets more ominously fulfilled than he had bargained when his bank sends him to Basque Country, where he encounters a legendary leader of the Basque separatist movement. When his controversial new acquaintance quickly turns up dead, and Alex's former connection to anti-terrorism becomes more widely known, he becomes both hunter and hunted in a pleasingly complex tale that would be a good fit for the movie screen.

Short takes

It will take less time to digest some carrot sticks than to read Pierre Bayard's amusing "Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles.'" As in last year's "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," the subversive Bayard, a self-styled "detective critic," cautions "one should always be wary of an author's conclusions." In a quick 180 pages of close textual analysis, he undermines the peerless Holmes' deductive reasoning and conclusions in the Baskerville case. Sherlockian purists will be intrigued, dismissive or apoplectic -- and Bayard likely will reply dismissively (as Holmes never did), "Elementary, my dear Watson."

An 800-page tome from the Library of America may sound like a big platter of tofu, but "True Crime: An American Anthology" (Library of America, 788 pages) edited by Harold Schechter is more like a bowl of unsalted almonds: tasty and good for you, if you don't eat too many at once. Included are nonfiction accounts of famous American crimes by nearly all the brand names of American literature, from Cotton Mather to Mark Twain, Willa Cather to Damon Runyon. You can't make this stuff up.

Also good for light snacking before bedtime is "The Best American Mystery Stories 2008" (Houghton Mifflin, 421 pages), edited by popular crime novelist George Pelecanos. The title pretty much says it all, but if you ask me, the best of these "Best" are S.J. Rozan's "Hothouse," Alice Munro's "Child's Play" and James Lee Burke's "Mist."

  Comments