by Bruce TierneyFebruary, 2008
Chilling mysteries for winter days
It appears that winter 2007-2008 may be the breakout season for new mysteries from China: First came Qiu Xiaolong's atmospheric Red Mandarin Dress, set in the port city of Shanghai; now we are treated to Diane Wei Liang's The Eye of Jade, which takes place in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Protagonist Mei Wang operates her two-man (well, one woman and one man) private detective agency out of a tiny, sparsely furnished room in a run-down Beijing office building. Strictly speaking, private detectives are banned in China, so she is registered as an "information consultant," a bit of linguistic legerdemain that allows her to ply her trade with minimal interference from the authorities. When Mei Wang is hired by an old family friend to search for a missing Han Dynasty jade, she has little idea that the search will stir up ghosts of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao's forced labor camps and her own largely unexamined personal history. Diane Wei Liang has captured the vibrancy of Beijing, certainly one of the world's most fascinating cities, and overlaid a tale rich with history and filled with complex and entertaining characters. The novel is billed as the first in a new series; I hope the second installment arrives quickly!
Two years ago, I reviewed Brian Freeman's first novel, Immoral, calling it "a slick and savvy offering and the best debut mystery in quite some time." The book went on to win the Macavity Award. This month, Freeman is back with the third in his series featuring Duluth cop Jonathan Stride, his live-in, ex-cop girlfriend Serena Dial, and his Asian-American partner Maggie Bei: Stalked. All three characters are fleshed out considerably in this latest outing, especially Maggie, whose lurid after-hours life is about to come under scrutiny in ways the average person cannot begin to anticipate. "Dead of winter" takes on a new meaning as Maggie awakens to discover a) that her gun is missing from the nightstand, and b) that it has been used to plant a bullet squarely into the forehead of her husband (with whom, it must be said, she has not been getting along of late). Maggie's cop instincts take over quickly; she has seen more than her share of dead bodies in her years as a homicide detective. She phones Stride immediately, and both know it goes without saying that Maggie will be considered the prime suspect. But Maggie knows things Stride cannot even guess at, and their convoluted relationship is about to get exponentially more complicated. A couple of clever subplots ratchet up the tension, and the final conflict on the frozen waters of a Minnesota lake is nothing short of inspired—a perfect read for a freezing February night!
There is no respite from the cold in the next offering, either; Kitty Sewell's Ice Trap takes place, for the most part, in the wilds of Canada's Northwest Territories, in a remote Arctic outpost called Moose Creek. Back in 1992, Welsh surgeon Dafydd Woodruff did a stint at the Moose Creek hospital, and a night of excess during his stay there is about to come back to haunt him. Out of the blue he receives a letter from Canada, which begins "Dear Dr. Woodruff, I hope you don't mind me writing to you. I think I'm your daughter." There is more; the girl has a twin brother, and it seems that there is DNA evidence to back up her claim. Naturally, this does not set well with Dafydd's current wife, especially as she has been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for quite some time. Dafydd realizes that no meaningful investigation can be done from his home in Wales, so he takes leave from his practice and heads across the ocean to assess the situation firsthand. In short order, he will begin to question everything he believes about his first Canadian sojourn, unearthing clues of a conspiracy so audacious it will leave him gasping for breath. Ice Trap is cleverly conceived and brilliantly rendered, with vivid descriptions of the chilly north that will have the reader heading for the nearest closet in search of gloves and a scarf!
MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
I will say right up front that Eli Gottlieb's Now You See Him is not your conventional whodunit fare. It falls into that silvery gray area of "fine literature blended with mystery," along with Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Ross King's Ex-Libris, or last month's Tip of the Ice Pick winner, Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. It is a genre that I find increasingly appealing the more I read (and the older I get). Now You See Him is the story of Rob Castor, a one-time literary darling who has somehow lost track of his muse, and his longtime best friend, Nick Framingham, whose arguably unhealthy devotion to Rob is playing havoc with his marriage and his sanity. Gottlieb cuts back and forth between present and past, one by one exposing the secrets that bind yet alienate the two friends. There is a murder, and a suicide, but the reader knows both victim and perpetrator from early on. Still, not everything is as it seems (is it ever?), and there is a twist that not even the most jaded of genre addicts will see coming. But, unexpected though the ending may be, that is not the focal point of Now You See Him; page after page is full of tiny pearls of wisdom, or lushly clever turns of phrase that will make you pause in your reading, just for the sheer pleasure of drinking in the moment. Consider this line, for instance: "He used to say that nouns were bits of two-sided tape that made symbols stick to life." Or this: "He once told me that all of poetry was contained in the b of the word subtle." When you can craft a sentence like that, a taut story line and compelling characters are simply the icing on the cake.