The Second Sorrowful Mystery

by Jonathan Harrington

Published by Wright Way Publishing

224 pages, 1999

 

Two Murders in My Double Life

by Josef Skvorecky

Published by Key Porter Books

183 pages, 1999

 

The Feast of Stephen

by Rosemary Aubert

Published by Bridge Works Publishing

257 pages, 1999

 

Italian Fever

by Valerie Martin

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

272 pages, 1999

 

Revenge of the Gypsy Queen

by Kris Neri

Published by Rainbow Books

272 pages, 1999

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Gems and a Rhinestone

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson

 

Gambling on books by new and lesser-known crime fiction authors has paid off handsomely for me in recent weeks. I've discovered four delightful gems and been stuck with only one trashy bauble. First, the four treasures:

In The Second Sorrowful Mystery, Jonathan Harrington takes you deep into the lush and mysterious heart of rural Ireland -- specifically, to the tiny Irish village of Ballycara, where the resident priest, Father Padraic O'Malley, vanishes one day, shortly after holding mass. The amateur sleuth here is an American schoolteacher, Danny O'Flaherty, who had first visited Ballycara two years earlier to research his family roots. (On that trip, Danny had also solved the murder of his cousin, a story recounted in Harrington's 1996 book The Death of Cousin Rose.)

Danny, now teaching in Dublin, has developed a friendship with O'Malley, a robust cleric fond of fishing, golf and the occasional pint. When the clergyman fails to meet him for their planned fishing trip, Danny becomes suspicious. Arriving in Ballycara, he unlocks the church basement and discovers O'Malley's dead body -- but no sign of the basement keys the priest usually kept on his person.

Danny is aghast when the local policeman -- hurrying to the airport for a vacation in Spain -- shrugs off the significance of the locked door and rules that O'Malley died from a heart attack. When the police pathologist finds evidence of poisoning, Danny wins permission from the regional chief superintendent (whose own staff is preoccupied with arranging security for international peace talks set to begin in the area) to investigate. The young American soon has Ballycara in an uproar as he rekindles old feuds, uncovers a tragic secret about Father O'Malley's life before the priesthood and accidentally destroys an undercover police operation.

Author Harrington has a keen eye and a great love for the hallmarks of Irish life, from ancient folkways to modern morality. He serves up some colorful and complex village characters, such as Mrs. Slattery, the prim bed-and-breakfast landlady who accompanies Danny on a hair-raising car chase, and the widow Conlon, who dresses up like a chorus girl for a meeting with a mysterious out-of-town businessman.

Danny O'Flaherty is not, unfortunately, a particularly dashing or engaging detective. Even his smoldering romance with the beautiful but cantankerous Fidelma Muldoon fails to catch fire. But at its best moments, The Second Sorrowful Mystery harkens back pleasantly to stories by European crime fiction masters such as Georges Simenon and Nicholas Freeling about small-town misdeeds and the collision of urban values with rural customs.

* * *

Both story lines in Josef Skvorecky's Two Murders in My Double Life will delight readers who like a little intellectual perspective in their mysteries. In this book -- heavy with autobiographical roots -- Skvorecky interweaves the stories of a murder at a small Canadian college and character assassination in post-Communist Czechoslovakia.

The unnamed narrator of these twin tales is a Czech author who teaches fiction writing at the imaginary Edenvale College. He admires hard-boiled American crime fiction, and when the philandering husband of another faculty member is found strangled, he leaps at the chance to dabble in detection himself. A shrewd observer of character (or lack of it), he suggests lines of investigation to Dorothy Sayers -- not the late doyenne of British cozies, but the chunky, dogged police sergeant who is taking his class in detective story writing.

Campus crime solving is a much-needed diversion for the narrator. He's tormented by his inability to save the career -- and life -- of his brilliant wife Sidonia. After fleeing Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, she had achieved international renown as a Canadian publisher of Czechoslovakian literature that was suppressed in the Eastern bloc. But before leaving her homeland, she had been approached by a member of the government seeking information on "subversives." Sidonia had supplied what she felt at the time was a harmless tidbit of information about a friend; the friend had long since forgiven her. But in the post-Communist era, a newspaper publisher has found records of her information and decided to smear her as a Communist collaborator. Her publishing house -- and her marriage to this book's narrator -- are now being described as mere fronts for her spying activities. Battered by continual attacks in the Czech press, Sidonia has abandoned her promising career as a novelist and is steadily drinking herself to death.

"Naturally, my colleagues at Edenvale College had no idea what was going on," the narrator says. "We lived in two very different worlds, and they knew only their own."

Skvorecky cuts back and forth between his two stories -- each with its own element of the absurd -- to create a book that reminds me of those small wooden Russian dolls that open to reveal a succession of different dolls within: silly, sad, frightening, ludicrous, salacious, tragic. Two Murders in My Double Life at times reads like an unlikely collaboration of Peter deVries with Alexander Solzhenitzyn.

Skvorecky has skillfully employed the popular subgenre of the academic cozy to lure the reader into exploring what is usually a less-accessible sort of mystery: intellectual crime. His tactic works. Two Murders in My Double Life is an easy but rewarding read. I couldn't help but feel some measure of identification with a narrator who escapes from the pain around him by losing himself in the simple pleasures of crime fiction.

* * *

The Feast of Stephen, by Canadian novelist Rosemary Aubert, is based on a premise that is at once intriguing and difficult to swallow: A prominent Toronto judge has become a street person, and he's called upon by a fellow drifter to prove that a string of deaths are actually murders.

Aubert introduced her unlikely detective, Ellis Portal, in Free Reign (1997), and recalls him for this second tale. From bits and pieces in the new book, we gather that a scandal involving two of his old law school classmates (Harpur Stoughton-Melville, a woman he loved, and Justice John Stoughton-Melville, her powerful husband) had cost Portal his career and marriage. He now lives in an abandoned government building on the outskirts of Toronto, where certain authorities tolerate his presence.

Queenie, a Native American and recovered alcoholic whom he had known on the streets, comes to ask the former judge to prove that the death of her friend Melia, attributed to drink, was actually a poisoning. Portal is reluctant to become involved -- until Queenie shows him a handwritten Biblical quotation Melia had received just before her death. He had received a similar note in the mail himself. After agreeing to accompany Queenie back to the city the following day, he places the two notes into a leather portfolio:

In the light from my candle, the bold, uneven handwriting seemed to writhe. But I did not find that nearly as frightening as the fact that there were not two such notes in the portfolio. There were ten. I had been receiving them for months.

As the story goes on, Portal returns to Toronto to live frugally in a rented room and pursue the mystery of a series of murders. Most of the victims are mildly eccentric courtroom groupies, down on their luck, but one of them is a brilliant young college student who ran afoul of the law. The crimes are linked not only by Biblical references found on each of the bodies, but also by the victims' connections to the halls of justice in which Portal once presided. In order to find the serial killer and stop the murders, the judge must overcome his shame and re-enter the courthouse he'd fled.

This perspective of an insider-turned-outsider, coupled with the author's stark, spare writing, create an extraordinarily eerie mood. The Feast of Stephen leaves you off balance. Can you trust the judgment of someone who lives in an abandoned building? Can you trust the former friends who have apparently allowed Portal to end up in this sorry state? How valid are the clues provided by Harpur, now suffering from Alzheimer's disease and confined to an exclusive nursing home? In this mystery, you don't merely wonder who is innocent and who is guilty, you wonder who is sane and who is crazy.

In the last third of this book, the plot elements all come together a bit too neatly and the story turns several shades lighter in tone. But despite the overly sweet ending, The Feast of Stephen is a memorable book. The opportunity to see crime -- of many kinds -- through the eyes of such a distinctive sleuth is not to be missed. I'll be on the lookout for Aubert's next Ellis Portal novel.

* * *

Although Valerie Martin's Italian Fever is being marketed as a mystery novel, I'd put it firmly -- but admiringly -- on the romance shelf.

An egomaniacal second-rate novelist (referred to throughout this story as "DV") has died under mysterious circumstances in the Tuscan town of Ugolino. He had moved there with his latest glamorous lover (a sculptor, Catherine Bultman) and was hard at work on yet another trashy book. His mousy secretary, Lucy Stark, is sent to Italy to arrange his funeral and to locate the second half of his work-in-progress.

Try to suspend judgment when you meet Lucy's Italian escort, sent by DV's publisher. His name is (I kid you not) Massimo. Lucy notes with weakening knees "the unsettling combination of his icy manner and his extraordinary good looks."

Arriving in Ugolino, Lucy is surprised to discover that DV had been staying in a rustic farmhouse rather than the imposing old villa he had lovingly described in the first chapters of his new novel. And DV had failed to mention to friends or colleagues back in the States that Catherine had left him some months earlier.

When DV's landlords, the Cini family, host an elegant dinner after the author's funeral, Lucy recognizes their residence immediately as the one in which DV had set his latest book. The Cinis' son, the dark and forbidding Antonio, is appalled to hear that DV was writing about their family home, and even more alarmed to hear that the book's characters included the ghost of a Cini family member killed on their property during World War II.

Lucy's nervous sleuthing at the farmhouse fails to uncover the rest of DV's novel, but she does come across a love letter -- apparently written by Antonio Cini to DV's girlfriend, Catherine. Her investigations at the Cini estate are cut short when she is stricken with a severe flu and, in her fevered state, believes that she encounters the Cini family ghost described in DV's novel. Post-ghost, Lucy spends a significant portion of the novel in bed, being nursed back to health by the gallant but secretive Massimo.

Unlike your usual romance, Italian Fever does not seem vague or colorized. It is rich in authentic detail, nuance -- and humor.

"It was the closest thing to a description of real human suffering DV had ever written," Lucy marvels at one point, studying her boss' latest work. She adds immediately: "It wasn't good, by any means."

Martin (who's probably best known for her previous novels The Good Divorce and Mary Reilly) uses the Italian setting as far more than a backdrop for romantic fever. From villas long on history but short on central heating, to delicious three-hour-long meals and serious discussions over the options for preparing a sea bass, she has captured Italian life.

Massimo, who turns out to be a far better detective than Lucy, together with the stunning and self-confident Catherine (currently living in Rome and speaking flawless Italiano), emerge as complex rather than stereotypical characters. So complex, in fact, that by the end of her Tuscan adventure, Lucy concludes that "she had gotten just about everything wrong" about everyone involved -- even DV.

If you've always wondered about romantic novels, but would rather die than be caught reading one, this is your chance: Try Italian Fever and claim that you're reading crime fiction.

* * *

Revenge of the Gypsy Queen gets off to a zesty start that reminded me briefly of Janet Evanovich's spunky Stephanie Plum series (High Five). But it turns out that this tantalizing title has been wasted on a shallow and stultifying book.

In her first novel, short-fiction writer Kris Neri trots out a lineup of two-dimensional characters all too easily recognizable by anyone who has seen a bad movie set in New York City during the 1980s. There are WASPs (rich and uptight, of course), taxi drivers (ethnic and good-hearted, natch), theater types (loud and self-indulgent, dahling), and of course, da Mob.

The amateur detective in Revenge is Tracy Eaton, the daughter of a flamboyant theater couple, who has married into an ever-so-proper WASP clan. Tracy's sister-in-law, about to be married to an Italian restaurateur, vanishes just before the wedding. But the Eatons mysteriously refuse to call the police, and Tracy's humorless yuppie husband, Drew, is adamant that she not investigate. Uh-oh. Could they be hiding something?

Who cares? This book bogs down in hyperbolic descriptions (Tracy beats up a would-be mugger in Central Park, then chases a suspect through a posh restaurant and winds up covered with lobster Newberg) and an interminable, convoluted plot (it somehow involves the Eatons' black sheep, Uncle Philly, a washed up European ballet dancer, and a cop whose wife is a supermodel). Revenge of the Gypsy Queen reminds me of getting onto a New York subway, collapsing onto a seat, and realizing, just as the doors close, that there is a lunatic in the car, ranting on and on. At each improbable twist in the plot, I found myself echoing Drew's plaintive request, repeated at intervals through this book: "Promise me, Tracy, please promise me, you won't look into it?" | September 1999

 

KAREN G. ANDERSON reviews crime fiction regularly for January Magazine.