by Bruce TierneyMay 2012
A corpse in the Venetian canals
The redoubtable Commissario Guido Brunetti returns for his 21st adventure in Donna Leon’s latest novel, Beastly Things. This time around, Brunetti looks into the murder of a man found thrice stabbed, his features dreadfully battered by the strong tides of the Venetian canals. Only two clues present themselves: The victim is wearing one expensive shoe, of a brand that can only be found in a few exclusive shops, and he is disfigured by a rare metabolic disorder that has rendered his neck and torso grossly outsized. The investigation will lead Brunetti to a slaughterhouse, the graphic depiction of which will likely leave readers contemplating vegetarianism. And somewhere, amid all the blood and guts, a murderer lurks. Brunetti is, as always, a canny commentator on Italian culture. About venal local politicians, he makes the tongue-in-cheek observation that “In the presence of a trough, it is difficult not to oink.” Leon has created a sympathetic character in Brunetti and a strong supporting cast. However, it is in the poignant closing scene—at a funeral you will not soon forget, attended by all manner of creatures great and small—where Leon’s singular talents truly shine.
A HOLY PUZZLE
As The Inquisitor’s Key opens, forensic anthropologist Bill Brockton is summoned to Avignon, France, where his assistant is helping with the excavation of an anteroom beneath the Palace of the Popes. Her team has made an epic discovery: a stone box inscribed with the claim that it holds the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. The plot thickens when a facial reconstruction of the skeleton is discovered to bear an uncanny resemblance to the image on the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Brockton, an avowed skeptic, finds himself drawn into the case as each successive test seems to point more compellingly toward authenticity. And then the murders begin. . . . The Inquisitor’s Key employs twin narrative arcs, one set in medieval Avignon and populated by renowned artists, benighted villagers and avaricious popes. The second is set in the modern-day version of the city, where archaeologists hover on the brink of rewriting Christian history. Religion and science collide, with results both thought-provoking and eminently plausible as the book races toward its unexpected (and highly original!) resolution.
SPYING FOR THE RUSSIANS
In 2007, I wrote that David Downing’s debut, Zoo Station, “will have readers clamoring for a sequel.” Sequels, each named for a Berlin train station, have indeed transpired; the latest in the series, Lehrter Station, finds Anglo-American journalist/author/spy John Russell re-conscripted by the Russians to infiltrate the German Communist Party in postwar Berlin. He can scarcely refuse, as it was Russian intervention that secured the release of his son Paul from custody, and it is closemouthed Russian complicity that safeguards Russell from treason charges by the Allies. Still, Russell is none too happy with the turn of events that propels him once more into the world of espionage. Basically, Russell is a good guy doing his best to maintain integrity in the midst of chaos at every turn. Staying one step ahead of the enemy—whomever that may be—is taking its toll. Downing’s deft weaving of fiction and real-life WWII history is second to none. One caveat: Downing makes many references to events chronicled in earlier books; I recommend reading the series in order for the sake of continuity.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a 7 questions interview with David Downing.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
The “locked room” mystery has been a genre standby since at least the days of Edgar Allan Poe (The Murders in the Rue Morgue) and Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone). But rarely has it been done as cleverly and atmospherically as in Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther wartime novel, Prague Fatale. The victim is a young adjutant on the staff of real-life Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, dubbed by Hitler as “the man with the iron heart.” Gunther, a Berlin cop, is conveniently on-hand at Heydrich’s country house in Prague at the time of the murder, which appears to have transpired in a room with doors and windows bolted from the inside. The cast of suspects reads like a “Who’s Who” of Nazi-dom, and Gunther is faced with the delicate assignment of interviewing powerful men who could consign him to oblivion. And whatever else one might call Bernie Gunther, “delicate” is not on the approved list of adjectives. Prague Fatale is classic Philip Kerr, a first-person noir detective story worthy of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler in every regard, seamlessly transplanted to war-era Europe. Every time I finish another Gunther novel, I think, “This is as good as it gets.” Then inevitably, the next one comes along and is even better!