- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

The “Golden Dagger,” awarded by the British-based Crime Writers’ Association to the best crime novel each year, is known the world over. Unfortunately for the British, it is writers from the rest of the world who recently have been making off with it. Foreign writers have won the award four out of the last five years.

Marcel Berlins, a British mystery writer and sometime Golden Dagger judge, wrote in the Guardian recently that when it comes to the crime novel, “England has lost its supremacy.” (P.D. James and Ruth Rendell are not getting any younger, he reminds us.)

Sadly, the British have decided that starting this year, the Golden Dagger will be awarded only to novels originally written in English. Among those no longer eligible for the award is Kjell Eriksson, a Swede whose mysteries have been bestsellers in Europe. His The Princess of Burundi (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 304 pages) is his first work to be translated into English.

Mr. Eriksson gives us Inspector Ann Lindell, who has appeared in his previous books. Britons pining for one of their own to win the Golden Dagger may take solace in Lindell’s lament that she and her fellow detectives are not sophisticated like their British counterparts she sees on television — “the ones who listen to opera, know Greek mythology, and know if a wine is right for fish or a white meat.”

Although she is on maternity leave, Lindell is drawn back to work when a popular local figure, a blue-collar worker who is a tropical fish expert, is found brutally murdered. The characters in the book are both subtle and complex, and as in most Swedish mystery novels I have read, there is a good deal of the psychological and sociological. Sometimes that can be overbearing, but here it leads to interesting insights.

• • •

For those who prefer lighter and cozier mysteries, Murder on the Oceanic (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 288 pages) by British author Conrad Allen is more fun. As in Mr. Allen’s six previous mysteries, husband and wife George Dillman and Genevieve Masefield are hired to be detectives aboard an actual early 20th-century ocean liner — in this case, the Oceanic as it travels from England to New York.

That murder and so many thefts should occur on one Atlantic crossing may seem improbable. But a recent Time article reports that crime on cruise liners goes largely unreported because many victims are paid off to avoid bad publicity. Perhaps Detective Dillman is right when he argues that ocean liners are an ideal venue for crime, especially theft.

The most interesting character in the book is J.P. Morgan, the financier who is not one of the suspects when the series of crimes unfold, though he is a victim. His mistake is to leave recently purchased art in his suite instead of storing it in the ship’s vault. Morgan, perhaps accurately, is portrayed as a good deal more sophisticated about art and culture than some may think him to be.

Just as many a village, English country estate and even the Orient Express have provided ideal settings for mystery, murder and intrigue, so too does the ocean liner.

• • •

Death of a Dreamer (Mysterious Press, $23.95, 256 pages) is M.C. Beaton’s 21st novel and is set in a small village in northern Scotland, where Hamish Macbeth is the lone police constable. Ms. Beaton’s novels are very popular, airing six times as television episodes on the BBC.

This book, however, is rather weak, even though it does have an interesting plot and intriguing details about northern Scotland. One does not expect complex character development in this kind of mystery, but here it is almost non-existent. It is as if Mrs. Beaton has grown tired of describing her characters, such as the gossipy Currie sisters or the town’s moral watchdog, Mrs. Wellington. This is true even of Hamish Macbeth. His former fiancee and a former girlfriend are back in town, and he encounters two other women who interest him romantically. Yet Macbeth hardly has a single complex thought about his situation, other than acknowledging that he’s confused.

If one enjoys, as I do, these cozy village novels where the villains are almost always outsiders, consider Rhys Bowen’s mysteries set in a Welsh village. The characters freshly delight in each of her new books.

• • •

It is generally assumed that if an author, in whatever kind of fiction, writes about a sport, the author should know something about it. That is certainly not the case in Otto Penzler’s collection of short stories, “Murder at the Racetrack” (Mysterious Press, $24.95, 384 pages). The book is filled with howlers.

Perhaps the most egregious are in the book’s longest story, “Raindancer,” by Michael Malone. His plot revolves around an owner who has entered two horses in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes, a warmup race before the Kentucky Derby. One horse is entered as a “rabbit,” to set a suicidal pace, weaken the other speed horses and allow the owner’s second entry to catch them during the stretch run. The groom and apprentice jockey of the “rabbit,” however, are convinced that it (at 60 to one odds) can win the race. So they bet on their horse and not the owner’s second, heavily-favored entry.

Surely anyone who has ever been to the track knows that two horses with the same owner have always been entered in a race as a single entry. If either horse comes out on top the same winningsare paid.

Even more absurd is that the horse, Raindancer, clocks a mile-and-a-quarter in a workout as fast as Secretariat covered the distance in his epic Kentucky Derby win. Raindancer is two years old when he accomplishes the feat; no two-year-old has every approached such speed nor would run workout distances of that length.

One could have guessed by the editor’s introduction that the absurdities of this book were coming. Mr. Penzler writes, “If there’s a dirtier sport than horse racing … I have yet to discover it.” In fact, thoroughbred racing is the most heavily policed of all American professional sports, for unlike football or basketball, its income depends on customers who believe in a race’s integrity enough to bet.

This book’s companion volume is “Murder in the Rough.” If a golfer decides to indulge, he or she should not be surprised if a 15-year-old defeats Tiger Woods at Augusta National Golf Course.

Lloyd Shaw is a retired professor of English.

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