Review by New York Times Review
TANA FRENCH promises two whodunits for the price of one in her harrowing first novel, IN THE WOODS (Viking, $24.95), by linking the contemporary homicide of a 12-year-old girl from a small town near Dublin with the misadventures of three children who vanished while playing in the same wooded area 20 years earlier. While French resolves only one of these twinned mysteries, the intricate design of her storytelling is something of its own reward - although that might not appease readers who, having been lured into these thickets, find themselves hanging from a limb. In the view of Rob Ryan, a Dublin detective assigned to investigate the rape and murder of Katy Devlin (whose body is found on the site of an archaeological dig, draped across a Bronze Age sacrificial altar), "this case was too full of skewed, slippery parallels." If anyone has a right to that opinion, it's Ryan, who, unknown to all but his homicide-cop partner, Cassie Maddox, was one of the three playmates who disappeared from the town of Knocknaree in the summer of 1984 - and the only one who returned. Since Ryan never recovered his memory of the ordeal, he's less the omniscient narrator of the story than its flawed subject, a man tormented by a secret he can't recall. Tana French French is a bit too infatuated with her hero, giving as much gravitas to Ryan's sophomoric romping with his tomboyish partner as she does to his speculations about Katy's odd family and unreliable neighbors. But if they don't play well as romantic partners, Ryan and Cassie pull their weight on the job, yielding cleareyed insights into the many layers of life in small Irish towns. The way French tells it, the history of Knocknaree will never be whole until the dual mysteries of Katy's death and the disappearance of the children are resolved. Although she overburdens the traditional police-procedural form with the weight of romance, psychological suspense, social history and mythic legend, she sets a vivid scene for her complex characters, who seem entirely capable of doing the unexpected. Drawn by the grim nature of her plot and the lyrical ferocity of her writing, even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods. You know you're reading a Swedish policier when an elderly man disappears and the investigating officer immediately suspects suicide. But the question put to the missing man's daughter - "Has your father shown any signs of depression lately?" - might be asked of any of the characters in THE CRUEL STARS OF THE NIGHT (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95), Kjell Eriksson's moving follow-up to "The Princess of Burundi." Although the novel's focus holds steady on police efforts to locate Prof. Ulrik Hindersten when the retired Petrarch scholar vanishes from the house he shares with his daughter, compassionate attention is also paid to the other aged victims of an unknown serial killer - including one old farmer who was indeed contemplating suicide and left behind a plaintive note asking that someone care for the beloved maple tree on which he intended to hang himself. Not even the cops are exempt from the autumnal melancholy that pervades the story, with Detective Ann Lindell acknowledging (in Ebba Segerberg's sober translation) "a nauseating feeling of indifference" and casually writing off October as her "blues month." Why genre readers are tickled by such morbid views of suffering humanity is anyone's guess. Suffice it to say that Eriksson understands the pathology and explores it with the utmost tenderness. Donna Leon is the ideal author for people who vaguely long for "a good mystery," meaning a strong story with discreet violence, a wise detective who doesn't drink or brood too much, and a setting that's worth the visit. That Leon is also a brilliant writer should only add to the consistently comforting appeal of her Venetian procedurals featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, an immensely likable police detective who takes every murder to heart. As a devoted family man, Brunetti is profoundly shaken by the baby-snatching case he encounters in SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN (Atlantic Monthly, $24), and the sympathy he feels for the distressed father, a pediatrician at a local hospital, only intensifies when Brunetti learns that the baby was acquired through an illegal adoption. Even as this case is pursued to its bitterly sad ending, Leon allows her warmhearted detective to take what solace he can from the beauty of his city and the homely domestic rituals that give him the strength to go on. Ruth Dudley Edwards's rollicking satirical mysteries have heretofore been confined to the British Isles, but now that MURDERING AMERICANS (Poisoned Pen, $24.95) has gotten around to American academia, we can expect to hear howls from the heartland. Through some colossal error in administrative judgment, a liberal arts college in Indiana has invited Baroness Ida Troutbeck, the foul-mouthed, politically iconoclastic and altogether endearing heroine of this series, to grace its campus as a visiting professor. Once in residence, Lady Troutbeck (who insists on being called Jack) finds reason to investigate the behavior of the school provost and the suspicious death of the woman's predecessor. But the guilty pleasure of this farce is the spectacle of Jack tearing down the precepts of political correctness honored on American campuses, like diversity studies and the tortured nomenclature that designates Indians as "First Citizens." "I like amusing and constructive anarchy," Jack says, pausing in her efforts to stir up a student insurrection. Well, so do we, and no one brings down the temple with more outrageous wit and style than Ruth Dudley Edwards. In her harrowing first novel, set in a small Irish town, Tana French presents two whodunits for the price of one.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]