- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 16, 2005

In Victoria Thompson’s Murder on Lennox Hill (Berkley Prime Crime, $23.95, 304 pages), the seventh in her Gaslight Mysteries set in New York City in the 1890s, the Irish police detective Frank Malloy, a widower, hooks up once again with Sarah Brandt, a widow from one of New York’s oldest and richest families — she considers Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt “an old friend.” Although her family disapproves, she works as a midwife, primarily on the lower East Side.

The book centers on three mysteries: who impregnated the heavily guarded 16-year-old retarded daughter of an affluent New York family; who murdered the chief suspect in that pregnancy; and who, years before, murdered Sarah Brandt’s physician husband, a murder that in a previous novel had led to Malloy’s meeting Brandt. The first two mysteries are solved. The third is not, but as Malloy’s and Brandt’s relationship deepens into “something more,” as both hope, one expects her husband’s murderer will be found in a future book in this series.

Sarah Brandt takes in homeless children and plans to adopt a four-year-old boy so traumatized by some event in his past that he refuses to speak, even though he fully understands language. Brandt is truly virtuous, but she can resort to subterfuge and gossip to sniff out suspects. Detective Frank Malloy is also virtuous, but has his flaws. although he has a deaf five-year-old son and struggles to pay his tuition at a special school, he does not have time to learn the sign language his son is rapidly acquiring.

Although there are a few goofs in the book, for instance, a sermon coming after the communion service at an Episcopal church, the book grabs one’s interest early, especially since the crimes seem so unsolvable. Ms. Thompson is skilled at dialogue, that most difficult form of writing, and this dialogue moves the book along quickly. The book’s climactic scene at a New York church seems at first highly improbable, but then its probability increases as the reader learns more.

There is an unhappy ending for the villain, but a happy one for the two protagonists, a bit of a miracle, but within reason.

• • •

Steven Saylor’s A Gladiator Dies Only Once (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 269 pages) is a book of short stories set in Rome in the first century BC. Mr. Saylor’s detective (or “finder”) is Gordianus (a friend of Cicero and many senators) about whom he has frequently written. I acknowledge that I had never read a mystery novel set in ancient Rome and expected to dislike it. However, I found these stories fascinating, especially for the details I learned about Roman life. Mr. Saylor has great knowledge of Rome and gives sources for some of his information, as well as a detailed chronology of Gordianus’ life and first century Roman history.

At the time the stories take place, Gordianus is living, dining and sleeping with his Egyptian slave Bethesda, whose mysticism often clashes with Gordianus’ rationalism. We learn from the chronology at the back of the book that Gordianus will later marry and have children by Bethesda.

Mr. Saylor’s description of upper-class Roman life is a good deal more believable than in Hollywood films or a number of novels. The book includes expertly described gladiator fights (often rigged and faked, we learn), but do not expect here elaborate orgies, nymphomaniac empresses or decadent banquets at which live pigeons fly out of pies. Mr. Saylor cannot resist a few comparisons to the modern world. A prominent Roman complains about racers and actors being wealthier than senators. “Our ancestors would be appalled,” he says.

• • •

The Four Courts Murder (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $22.95, 240 pages) is Andrew Nugent’s first mystery novel. Formerly a lawyer, he is now the prior of a Benedictine Abbey in Ireland and just as P. D. James so well uses her background in forensic science, Mr. Nugent uses his background in law and the monastery, providing wonderful (often funny) details about Dublin courts, barristers and solicitors, and the conflicts among monks, especially those between the more idealistic monks and the more practical monks.

In the first chapter, the Honorable Mr. Justice Sidney Piggot, judge of the High Court, is murdered in his chambers, murdered by what seems to be a well-placed kick to the neck from behind. Mr. Nugent’s police detective Dennis Lennon tells his sergeant Molly Power that he always thought Piggot “a good judge … but not a nice man.” He soon learns that Piggot was involved in shady business deals, as well as being a poor husband and father.

And, as in most good mystery novels, the number of individuals with a motive for killing him grows rapidly, though none seems capable of a karate kick to the back of the neck, except for a handsome blond lad who had been seen in court on the day of the murder. The identification of the blond lad will set off another string of mysteries.

Irishman that he is, Mr. Nugent, in an allusion to the author of “Gulliver’s Travels” and to James Joyce, gives us many an Irish story and describes the talk on a Dublin street as “philosophy and intonations unchanged since the age of Swift. ‘Ulysses’ here is a mere Johnny-come-lately.” Mr. Nugent has an Irishman’s gift for language and I look forward to another novel in which Inspector Lennon and his salty-mouthed assistant Sergeant Power try to solve a crime. According to the book jacket, that novel will be about African immigrants in Ireland, a subject Mr. Nugent should know well, for before become head of a Benedictine Abbey, he served for years as a missionary in Africa.

Lloyd Shaw is a retired professor of English who came late in his life to a love of the mystery novel.

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