- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

NEW TRICKS
By David Rosenfelt
Grand Central, $24.99, 320 pages

A TRACE OF SMOKE
By Rebecca Cantrell
Forge, $24.95, 303 pages

THE FATE OF KATHERINE CARR
By Thomas H. Cook Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 288 pages

It’s difficult to resist a book that has the face of a golden retriever on its jacket, and when that dog is accompanied by a wistful looking Bernese mountain puppy, you’re hooked. If there’s a better mystery to take on a plane or a train than David Rosenfelt’s New Tricks (Grand Central, $24.99, 320 pages), I can’t imagine it. In addition to being the author of a series of books featuring Andy Carpenter, a wisecracking attorney, Mr. Rosenfelt can claim to his personal credit the Tara Foundation, set up in memory of his own dog, now responsible for the rescue of 4,000 dogs in the past 15 years.

The author acknowledges that a furry face will sell copies but it helps if the book is also fun to read and lollops along at a golden retriever’s vigorous pace.

In this case, the plot gets off with a literal bang as Carpenter and Bernese mountain dog Waggy narrowly escape being blown up by a car bomb. Until that point, the lawyer is merely representing Waggy in a custody case, while harboring some doubts about how his retriever, Tara, will take to another dog in the house.

Now, he is in the middle of a double-murder case while reflecting on the macabre fact that had he chatted a few minutes longer with the deceased woman, he and Waggy “would be leaving in jars.” Carpenter has a sardonic turn of humor and style that enhances his books.

Laurie, the love of Carpenter’s life, has no sooner moved in for a visit than she is shot while playing outside his house with the doom-ridden Waggy. The frantic Carpenter finds himself in a hospital room where Laurie is close to dying. The only good news is that Waggy has become best friends with Carpenter’s golden retriever, Tara, so peace reigns in the canine household if nowhere else in the lawyer’s hometown of Paterson, N.J.

Given that Mr. Rosenfelt attributed the success of his last book to its eye-catching cover, readers can expect to identify his future mysteries by kindly canine faces.

•••


Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke (Forge, $24.95, 303 pages) is set in the dark savagery of emerging Nazi Germany in the 1930s and is a reminder of a world that existed for too long with too many victims and got far worse before it got better.

It tells the grim story of Hannah Vogel, a young female newspaper reporter in 1931 Berlin whose brother is a homosexual in an era when it was dangerous to be different. The plot begins with her horrifying discovery that a photograph of her brother’s corpse has been posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. As if that weren’t tragic enough, she cannot display any grief because she and her brother had loaned their passports to friends escaping to America, and she is temporarily without vital identification papers.

Ms. Cantrell writes poignantly of the mounting misery of existence in Hitler’s Germany and sharpens her plot by recalling how real-life Nazi officials close to the Fuehrer got away with being homosexual.

She softens her cast of tough characters by including a pathetic 5-year-old boy who insists he is an “Indian brave” despite the anger of his Nazi father at such a comparison. However, little Anton is trapped in a nightmare that stretches far into his future. There were few happy endings in those days and the Nazis had long arms when it came to recapturing their prey. The author offers no more than a glimpse of heaven for those who fled the terror.

•••


Thomas H. Cook’s The Fate of Katherine Carr (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 288 pages) is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and by its conclusion, the reader may remain not only mystified but uncertain of what really happened, which is most likely what the author had in mind and what makes the book fascinating.

Mr. Cook writes of a shadowed and surreal world that is fitting for a book about a murdered child, a missing woman and a tragically intelligent child called Alice who is dying from progeria, a disease in which the sufferer ages prematurely. As Mr. Cook describes her, “Alice Barrows, twelve years old, looked like an old woman. … Her chin came to a point … and her head seemed to bloom from it like a misshapen flower from a tiny vase.

“Her eyes were brown and very large, the skin around them deeply creased, her face a web of wrinkles.”

The friendship of writer George Gates and Alice grows from a mutual fascination with a story written 20 years earlier by Katherine Carr, a woman whose disappearance had never been solved. The book is a jigsaw puzzle of plots that move at times confusingly between the melancholy reflections of travel writer Gates, who blames himself for the kidnapping and murder of his only son and the writings of Carr about her short and bizarre life. Or, we assume her life was as short as it was brutal. We aren’t quite sure.

It is not difficult to understand Gates’ guilt over the day he failed to pick up his son from a school bus and never saw him again until his remains were found. But it is not easy to disentangle the deeply disturbing forebodings of Carr and the uneasily developing theories of Gates.

The author leaves a suggestion that may be no more than a thought that Carr’s predictions about herself were inextricably linked to the circumstances of Gates’ tragedy.

This is an unusually sad and haunting book that leads the reader through a tangle of psychological questions and leaves many unanswered.

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

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