- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

Roseline is a pig who digs up truffles and in her spare time hunts down killers.

She also hogs (sorry) the limelight in Pierre Magnan’s Death in the Truffle Wood (Thomas Dunne, $23.95, 208 pages), a delightful French mystery that mingles death and truffles in a stew of eccentric and homicidal characters. Mr. Magnan lives up to his reputation as a chronicler of the politics, passions and scandal that rumble beneath the surface of a sleepy village in Provence, where the cultivation and sale of truffles are the chief source of local income.

When the little town of Banon is invaded by hippie outsiders, devoted to drugs and decadence while eschewing such bourgeois weaknesses as baths, the consequences are bloody.

One body turns up in a hotel freezer, some are buried in an ancient family vault, another has his throat cut and Commissioner Laviolette is called on to unravel the web of crime besetting the once-peaceful countryside — and, incidentally, to reveal that truffles thrive on blood. Roseline probably knew that. With a pink ribbon around her massive neck, she is a truffle hunter beyond compare — “one of those rarest of females that dug up truffles without eating them.”

Her shrill cry of “Cro!” signals the discovery of an especially succulent truffle, but when she is insulted and assaulted with a flurry of stones, she raises her voice to accuse her assailant, who turns out to be the murderer. With Roseline on his scent, he doesn’t have a chance.

Whether you like truffles or pigs, it is difficult to imagine anyone not relishing this savory dish of a book, which is as informative about the finding and preparation of truffles as it is about crime.

•••

The ghostly atmospherics of the past almost choke Phillip DePoy’s A Widow’s Curse (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 272 pages) a talky and complicated mystery set in the murky past and haunted present of the Georgia hill country. After you’ve adjusted to Mr. DePoy’s chief character, who is burdened by the name of Fever Devilin, you still have to deal with the tentacles stretching from a mysterious family medallion linked to a past curse and current mayhem.

Fever, a folklorist who finds himself a murder suspect, may sum up his situation when he muses, “There may be a moment in everyone’s life when the idea occurs to them that they come from a cursed family. Every family is cursed. I’d held that belief since I was seven. But it was quite another venture to be confronted with clear evidence of the concept.”

However, there is nothing simple about the evidence, which has its roots buried on the other side of the Atlantic as well as a dollop of family wickedness as the Devilins’ problems are disclosed. It’s pure melodrama that moves in a state of such speed and confusion that it gives the reader pause about keeping up with it, but there is a nice touch in the Widow of the Swans, “the enchanted woman who outlived everything she loved” who can be seen as a pallid figure wandering around the family estate. Given the tangles of the plot, it isn’t too surprising she’s still lost.

•••

Start with the 73-year-old tragic love of an Ojibwe Indian medicine man for the daughter of a rich white man, toss in a hidden gold mine and season with the legend of Howard Hughes, and you’ve got your reader’s attention.

William Kent Krueger throws everything but the kitchen sink into Thunder Bay (Atria, $24, 288 pages), the seventh story of his now ostensibly retired Minnesota private investigator Cork O’Connor, and it comes off as an ingenious base for a mystery that moves right along. The indefatigable O’Connor pauses in the midst of a family crisis to become the champion of Henry Meloux, an aging American Indian who wants help locate the son born to him as a result of an illicit affair more than seven decades earlier.

The investigation bounds along from Minnesota to Canada, where Meloux’s son proves to be a reclusive and mysterious mining entrepreneur who has apparently cultivated the privacy cult practised in real life by billionaire Howard Hughes. The cast of characters is vivid, the plotting is strong and O’Connor’s retirement gets off to the kind of start that usually marks the launching of a career. It’s great fun.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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