Books

Winter escape routes

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CORRECTION

In the Arts & Living section Sunday, the "Mysteries" column, which recommended the latest Charles Todd book, omitted the title. It is "A Pale Horse" (Morrow).

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T.S. Eliot had it wrong. February is the cruelest month, made crueler this year by a whole extra day of dour. Unless, that is, you are a big fan of Presidents Day (which, if you follow the media, seems like every day lately) or Valentine's Day (which is for amateurs, the delusional, guilt buffs or voracious merchants).

If all this sounds like somebody woke up on the wrong side of the year, well, so be it. But were I omnipotent, I would cut straight from New Year's Eve (also for amateurs, etc.) and to the Ides of March, which at least included a good political murder. Maybe I just need to get away. Maybe you do, too. Here are some suggestions:

Why not start out by taking the "Night Train to Lisbon," by Pascal Mercier (Grove Press, $25, 496 pages), a mesmerizing combination of mystery yarn, travelogue and disquisition on the role of fickle chance in our lives that will transport you across both borders and traditional notions of reality.

Raimund Gregorius, 57, is a reclusive teacher of classical languages at the same Swiss school he himself attended decades ago. Long divorced and with few friends, Gregorius sees work and his invariable daily routine as his life. One rainy day, while walking along the river, he encounters a young Portuguese woman who seems about to jump in. He succeeds in stopping her, and, after a brief, enigmatic conversation, she writes a phone number on his forehead with a felt tip pen. (Like that's never happened to you.)

Later that day, Gregorius happens into a bookstore, where, for reasons too complicated for a mere plot summary, he is drawn to a mystery book by a (fictional) Portuguese author who, it turns out, was a leader of the resistance against that country's late dictator Antonio Salazar. As he begins meticulously translating the book at home, the routine-bound Gregorius becomes so transfixed by the puzzles it poses that, with sudden exhilaration and latent dread, he abruptly abandons his job and hops the titular night train to track down the author in Lisbon.

The phone number on the forehead, the chance encounter with the mysterious book and all the wonderful and appalling things that follow on our Prufrockian hero's quest make for a lusciously provocative story. But "Night Train to Lisbon" is not a page-turner. It requires patience and engagement, which will be well rewarded. Some readers will get some aroma of "The Name of the Rose," but although there are echoes of Eco here, this book has its own beguiling riddles to unravel.

The next destination on our February mystery tour is both more violent and, for all the wrong reasons, more familiar. "A Grave in Gaza," by Matt Beynon Rees (Soho Press, $24, 340 pages) is the second in a series (following the successful "The Collaborator of Bethlehem") featuring Palestinian history teacher and school principal Omar Yussef as its unlikely sleuth.

This time, while on an inspection tour of Gaza Strip schools, Yussef is yanked literally and figuratively into efforts to secure release of a university professor arrested in Gaza on apparently trumped-up charges of spying for the Israelis. Though he is well into his middle years, the canny scholar soon finds himself ensnared in all the madness surrounding the (at least) three-sided battle raging in the perpetually volatile section of the Middle East.

Ideology and political stereotype in this complex, compelling thriller are subtle to nonexistent. Author Rees, a former Time magazine Jerusalem bureau chief, knows the snakepit he's depicting, and the plucky Yussef certainly acts as if he does. Here's an amateur detective who has taken on history as well as a dangerous case, and the outcome is always suspensefully in doubt.

Our next stop is the ostensibly bucolic countryside of the Yorkshire dales, where Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge has been sent by his pseudonymous creators, the mother-and-son team writing under the name Charles Todd (the son lives in Raleigh).

Rutledge, a shell-shocked World War I veteran, arrives in Yorkshire to search for a secretive scientist and poison gas expert who apparently has gone missing. When a body wearing a hooded cloak and a gas mask turns up in storied Fountains Abbey ruins, and when area villagers treat Rutledge with all the sociability they would the Kaiser himself, the question becomes why. You'll love the evocative views of the British countryside at least as much as you will the story of hatred and revenge that accompanies it.

This winter diversion tour turns plum whirlwind with Steve Berry's "The Venetian Betrayal" (Ballantine, $29.95, 496 pages), as the author of such blockbusters as "The Templar Legacy" and the "The Alexandria Link" ferries us from Copenhagen to Venice to Samarkand in Central Asia and points in between. Berry, whose titles are Robert Ludlum retreads and whose quasi-plausible plots involving ancient "mysteries" suggest Dan Brown Lite, is no Nobel contender.

But, as with his previous books, if you're looking to escape the slings and arrows of a tedious winter, Berry's your man. Here his stalwart series hero, former U.S. intelligence agent and current expatriate rare book dealer Cotton Malone, gets mixed up with a gaggle of nasty Venetian businessmen and a power-mad female dictator and would-be terrorist who has consolidated a bunch of Central Asian countries under her tyrannical rule and who sees herself as the successor to Alexander the Great.

The bad guys and gal are on the trail of an allegedly magical elixir that can cure diseases like AIDS, but allegedly was buried with Alexander in a tomb lost to history. How and why Cotton Malone gets involved in all this would take another thousand words, but as stand-up comics say, if you buy the premise, you'll buy the bit. And Berry, as ham-handed a storyteller as he can often be, makes sure in this case you will buy both, and without much remorse.

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