Wartime mystery is cracking good yarn

“The Letter Writer” by Dan Fesperman. Knopf, 384 pages.

Dan Fesperman, whose novels have explored various war-torn parts of the world, brings this one home, although he still sets it in wartime. Detective Woodrow Cain arrives in New York City as the S.S. Normandie is burning in the harbor. It’s a well-executed period piece, with plenty of historical detail but no whiff of the lectern. A cracking good yarn, as they would have said back then, full of well-turned passages: “The past wasn’t something you left behind. It was a parasite in the bloodstream, a congenital disorder. You could only hope that others wouldn’t spot the symptoms.”

Fesperman mixes his fictional characters with real historical figures like Albert Anastasia of Murder, Inc., and real events like the burning of the Normandie. On top of the war in Europe, there’s a bloody battle in progress for control of the city, with a new police commissioner trying to clean up bad precincts. Cain, leaving behind a scandal in North Carolina, walks into this melee with no scorecard and is promptly knee-deep in it, pressured on one side by the new commissioner and on the other by his own father-in-law, a lawyer who thought he was buying a police insider by helping Cain get the job.

But Cain has an ally: Danziger, the “letter writer” of the title, a scribe who reads and writes correspondence for illiterate foreigners at 50 cents a letter. He brings information to help Cain solve an immigrant’s murder, and together they follow that thread to find a larger wartime conspiracy. Danziger tells parts of the story in a distinctively scholarly style.

“Desperate Detroit and Stories of Other Dire Places” by Loren D. Estleman. Tyrus Books, 237 pages.

Loren D. Estleman’s novels always crackle with color and wit, so I was delighted to pick up a book of his short stories. All that delicious prose, boiled down to bite-sized pieces. And it’s just the collection of confections I expected: an imagined soliloquoy from John Dillinger, tales of a small-town bookshop owner/sleuth, a blood feud, a witness who isn’t protected after all, and much more. The stories span decades, including some of Estleman’s earliest magazine stories.

“Hard Light” by Elizabeth Hand. Minotaur, 336 pages.

Hard-drugging, hard-drinking photographer Cass Neary arrives in England and goes looking for her lover Quinn O’Boyle, who’s on the run after the events of the previous book, “Available Dark.”

Cass never passes a medicine cabinet without checking to see what she can pilfer, which is how she gets into trouble with a high-level gangster. As punishment for trying to rob him, he forces her to deliver small packages around the city. She stumbles across a murder and from there into a byzantine odyssey through the remnants of a notorious 1970s commune that produced an eerie cult film.

If you’re not sure you want to read about a character so dark, I’ll add that Cass does show flashes of decency, almost always toward the forgotten children she encounters in the shadows of society.

“Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s: The Zebra-Striped Hearse / The Chill / The Far Side of the Dollar,” edited by Tom Nolan. Library of America, 792 pages.

If you have missed Ross Macdonald in your journey through the genre, pick up this or the first volume of Macdonald reissues from Library of America last April, and see why he is often mentioned in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.