- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

This new 2005 is promising to be a good year for new authors, with no one being more promising than Patrick Hasburgh, whose Aspen Pulp (Thomas Dunne, $23.95, 288 pages) just might do for that ski town what Tim Dorsey and Carl Hiaasen have done for southern Florida.

The cover blurb describes the plot as an “avalanche of idiocy and irony,” a phrase that describes it perfectly and which I wish I had coined. The plot is simple enough: A washed-up, seriously alcoholic former Hollywood writer who is trying to make something that looks like a life in Aspen gets involved in the search for a wealthy politician’s daughter who apparently ran away to live out the sex, drugs and rock and roll thing.

It’s not so much the plot as the characters who populate it and Mr. Hasburgh’s remarkable writing talent that gives such vivid life to the oddball group and some highly unlikely but seriously entertaining situations. If you enjoy the aforementioned writers, which is to say if you have a funny bone, you are going to like “Aspen Pulp.”

• • •

Natalie R. Collins gives the Mormons a serious working over in her debut, Wives and Sisters (St. Martin’s, $23.95, 270 pages) but the same charges could be laid at the feet of any number of patriarchal institutions.

The story begins with two little girls playing in the woods near their home. One disappears and is never seen again. The second child, Allison Jensen, grows up haunted by the disappearance of that little girl and searching for answers no one wants to give her. Then she, too, is attacked and it seems the community is more interested in hiding the crime than in hunting down the criminal. It is a community in which to be female is to be lesser, to be at the mercy of males with their own agendas. Allison is a strong personality and she does not bend willingly.

This is a book written with skill and passion and I suspect it will resonate with women who have never set foot inside a Mormon church. These problems are too widespread to pin down to one place, one time or one institution.

• • •

I’m at a loss to categorize Craig Johnson’s A Cold Dish (Viking, $23.95, 354 pages). It is described as a first novel, but the back jacket flap says Mr. Johnson received the Wyoming Governor’s Fellowship Award for Literature. For sure, he can write and he’s a man who knows the territory.

Sheriff Walt Longmire has spent 24 years as lawman-in-chief of Wyoming’s Absaroka County, up against the rim of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. He has a good friend in Henry Standing Bear, an influential member of the Cheyenne community, and he has hopes that his deputy, hard-core city cop Victoria Moretti just might be persuaded to stick around and fill his job when he retires.

Mr. Johnson crams more local color into the first chapter of his book, where Sheriff Longmire moseys on out to a sheep farm to see what might be a dead human body — or perhaps just a dead sheep, than many writers can manage in a whole book. The effect is to make the reader slow down and mosey along just to see the world through the sheriff’s acutely perceptive eye.

The Indian wars are not quite as over as the history books would have us believe, and a lot of people on both sides of the reservation’s boundary are nervous when the body turns out to be that of a young man who was found guilty of raping a retarded Indian girl, and let off with a suspended sentence.

Are his two accomplices also on a hit list?

One of the attractive things about reading mystery novels is the opportunity to acquire arcane lore on a variety of subjects. In this case it is the venerable Sharps rifle that Santa did not bring me again this past Christmas.

It’s a dead heat whether this one is most readable because of its perceptive plot, its careful character development — yes, it is so — or its local color. The only thing better would be a trip to Absaroka County, and that might be lacking if Mr. Johnson were not along as a guide.

• • •

Slow down and give Stella Rimington time to bring At Risk (Knopf, $24, 367 pages) into flower, then hang on as this tale of terror reaches for high gear. Again, we have a debut novel, this one from the pixieish woman who spent 30 years in the British Secret Service, retiring in 1996 as the head of MI5.

Yes, we have the authenticity of procedure we would expect, but we also get a look at the price agents pay to be agents, the broken appointments, the long hours, the unrelenting stress and the loneliness that stems from a secret life.

Miss Rimington also creates an understanding look at those who would bring terror into a peaceful setting. In her hands two young people who want to blow up a small portion of the world are understandable, even if the act is repugnant.

Miss Rimington also excels at keeping several plot strings interesting and understandable until the reader can see just how they eventually intersect.

Obviously there is a good deal of Miss Rimington in agent Liz Carlyle, and the character is the better for it. Let’s have more, please.

Judith Kreiner is a copy editor on The Washington Times.

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