by Bruce TierneyJanuary 2009
Secrets hidden by apartheid
South Africa in 1952 provides the setting for Malla Nunn's atmospheric mystery, A Beautiful Place to Die. At the dawning of the age of apartheid, South Africa has become an uncomfortable place to live for blacks and whites alike. In Jacob's Rest, a tiny town on the border with Mozambique, racial tensions come to a head when an Afrikaner police captain is found dead alongside the local river, a victim of foul play. Enter Detective Emmanuel Cooper, an Englishman relatively free of the biases that affect his Afrikaner compatriots. He will be the lead investigator into the murder . . . but not for long: the killing has caught the attention of the police Special Branch, and Cooper's authority is undercut by the powerful and radical political organization. Cooper is demoted to data-gatherer, but it will give him the opportunity to do some investigating of his own. Cooper quickly learns that the deceased police captain led something of a double life: on the one hand, he was a loving husband and father, a pillar of the community; on the other hand, he apparently pursued a complicated and forbidden relationship with a young black woman, a fact that someone (perhaps everyone) wants badly to suppress. Somewhere in the dichotomy lies the truth, and Cooper means to find it. A Beautiful Place to Die is Nunn's debut novel, and it bodes well for a long and successful run.
Death stalks the Big Easy
Although I tend to avoid period mysteries, I make a happy exception for David Fulmer's Valentin St. Cyr novels, set in New Orleans in the rough and tumble days shortly before World War I. In the latest installment, Lost River, our Creole PI hero has given up his Storyville (think "seamy underbelly") haunts, the result of a promise to his sweetheart that he would find a less dangerous line of endeavor. Now he runs a moderately successful and stable business as an above-board private detective, albeit one with little of the excitement and glitz of his previous career on the mean streets. In a moment of weakness, however, St. Cyr agrees to have a look into the murder of a man in a brothel, thinking he can sort it out quickly. Instead, in a classic variation of the "hunter becomes the game" theme, St. Cyr finds himself wanted for a murder he had nothing to do with. His girlfriend is seriously irritated with him—in fact, she may just be entertaining the notion of finding herself a "fancy man" and leaving St. Cyr high and dry. Seemingly with nowhere to turn, St. Cyr must rely on his street smarts to stay one step ahead of the cops as he tries to determine just who set him up, and if at all possible, to turn the tables. Fulmer won the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel for Chasing the Devil's Tail; four books later, he still displays the fine form that originally caught the judges' attention.
Harry Hole, the Oslo cop with the unforgettable name, is back in Jo Nesbo's gripping Nemesis. In this sequel to the best-selling Redbreast, Harry is involved in the investigation of a bank robbery gone bad, the teller shot at point-blank range for the apparently unpardonable error of handing the money over mere seconds past the one-minute deadline given by the robber. While Harry's significant other, Rakel, is away in Moscow, he agrees to meet an old flame for dinner. It will be casual, he thinks, no problem. As it turns out, a rather serious problem is in the offing. Next morning, Harry has a splitting headache, and no clear memory of the previous evening. Next day, he is called to a death scene, where he is dumbfounded to discover that his date of the previous evening is dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Although early indications are that it is a suicide, that doesn't ring true for Harry. Still, he cannot give her death the attention it deserves, since the bank robbers' escapades are becoming both more frequent and more violent. Then further investigation into the supposed suicide leads the police to suspect foul play; Harry finds himself the prime suspect. It will be a race against time to find the killer before Harry is put away for a murder he did not commit, or rather, a murder he's pretty sure he didn't commit, given the lapse in his memory. High tension, lightning pace, a flawed but ultimately sympathetic protagonist: Nemesis has it all.
Mystery of the month
Inspector Jian, a Chinese cop, receives a frantic phone call from his beloved but somewhat headstrong daughter Wei Wei, an exchange student in rural England. "Dad, help me, help me, help . . ." Then there is an ominous clunk and the line goes dead. Immediately he phones back, but gets only her voicemail. So begins Simon Lewis' debut thriller, Bad Traffic, this month's Tip of the Ice Pick Award winner. Already a critically acclaimed hit in England, Bad Traffic is poised for similar success here.
Calling in some serious favors, Jian arranges a UK visa and a flight for the following morning. He bears a hastily translated note in capital letters: THIS MAN HAVE COME FROM CHINA TO FIND HIS DAUGHTER WHO HAVE SOME TROUBLE. HE DOES NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. He expects the same sort of deference in England that he is accorded in China, but nobody at his daughter's school wants to give him the time of day. Finally one diffident student approaches: "I am learn Chinese here. I can help you." Bad grammar, but arguably a good start. Meanwhile, not far away, fellow countryman Ding Ming has his own set of worries: having paid an enormous sum to a group of "snakeheads" (smugglers dealing in human contraband) to get to England, he has become an indentured slave, forcibly separated from his young wife. On the plus side, Ding Ming speaks decent English, a valuable asset when he makes his escape. Now he must find his wife and somehow help her escape as well.
It goes without saying that Jian and Ding Ming will cross paths, and that their individual talents will prove useful to one another. It is a marriage of convenience, however, as their goals do not always dovetail. Only the knowledge that the alternative is exponentially worse keeps them together. And so these two strangers in a strange land careen through the pastoral English countryside in search of the women they love. Lewis has spent a good deal of time in the Middle Kingdom; he worked as a travel writer for the legendary Rough Guides to China, Beijing and Shanghai. When not traveling, he lives in London's multicultural community of Brixton.