- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

The day has long since passed when the mystery writer could be scorned as someone outside the club of serious writing. Plenty of pulp still exists out there, but good writers abound — it would be hard to better the description of the English landscape by P. D. James, or Stephen Saylor’s accurate descriptions of ancient Rome. Perhaps it is for money — mystery novels do sell better than most novels published by American presses — but, whatever, quality exists. Two such books are Michael Dronenwetter’s First Kill (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $24.95, 308 pages) and Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears The Wolf (Harcourt, $23, 271 pages, trans. from the Norwegian by Felicity David). Neither could ever be mistaken for the kind of mystery novels that still fill the shelves of supermarkets.

Told in the first person, the protagonist of “First Kill,” Mr. Kronenwetter’s first work of fiction, is Hank Berlin, who runs a one-man detective agency in Piney Falls, Wis., a city of around 100,000 people, the city in which he grew up. His current girlfriend says he is an “unlikely detective,” and he acknowledges such. “I’m not particularly big, or tough, or even hard-boiled … . I’ve always been concerned more with what’s right than what’s legal. I’ve never been big on authority or felt very comfortable around cops. After all, I spent some of the best years of my life in exile because of Vietnam.”

Hank is a lapsed Catholic, though he still takes his son to Mass, and his religious training and morality will be sorely tested in this very fine novel, in which in many ways he is forced to become the priest he once aspired to be. The reader meets in Hank a very bright and intricate man, but a man troubled by his divorce, his worthiness as a father and the rift (largely over Vietnam) that had occurred between him and his best friend many years before. The best friend, Jack Drucker, had told him in one of their final conversations before Drucker volunteered to serve in Vietnam that you are not a man until you have killed someone. Drucker’s experiences in Vietnam, which Hank learns of secondhand, become very important in this novel.

Drucker, a successful investigative newspaper reporter, had married the girl Hank had loved since high school. In all the 15 years since his return to Piney Falls, after President Carter’s amnesty, Hank has never spoken to Drucker or his wife, not even going to Drucker’s funeral. This changes when Drucker’s wife (Hank’s ex-girlfriend) hires him to seek out her husband’s murderer and the reason for that murder.

The beautifully written memories of his youth with Drucker evoke the beauty of young friendships, but also portend their future different directions. There are surprises in this book, though, as in many good mystery novels, the reader will either figure out who murdered Jack Drucker or realize he or she should have. Shallow characters are the norm in many a mystery novel, but in this book, the detective, the murderer and the murdered are complexly drawn. Even the minor characters, the policemen, the journalists, are interesting, believable individuals.

Karen Fossum’s “He Who Fears The Wolf” is the latest in a series of books featuring Police Inspector Seger. Seger is investigating the murder of an elderly woman who lived alone on an isolated farm, killed by a blow to her head with her own hoe. The chief suspect is a highly intelligent schizophrenic, Erkii Johrma, who lives in the Norwegian woods and has recently escaped from a mental institution. The evidence against him seems overwhelming, so much so that the seasoned mystery reader will realize he is not the murderer.

This is an odd book — and I don’t mean that disparagingly. It is odd because far more pages are devoted to Erkii Johrma and his adventures than to Inspector Seger. And even many of the pages involving Seger describe discussions with Johrma’s psychiatrist, who is convinced he would never commit such a crime.

Much of the book involves the inadvertent misalliance of Johrma, a man suspected but never convicted of crimes; a bank robber, clearly mentally challenged, on the run from the police after a successful heist; and an obese young boy devoted to archery, who reported to police the woman’s death.

Neither Lou Jane Temple’s The Spice Box (Bellamy Prime Crime, $22.95, 312 pages), set in New York City during the Civil War, nor Shirley Tallman’s The Russian Hill Murders (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 280 pages), set in San Francisco in the 1890s, approaches the literary quality or the complexity of character in the first two books reviewed, but both books are fun, each in its own way.

Lou Jane Temple is also a chef, restaurateur and wine critic and the book is filled with descriptions of meals at elegant New York tables, as well as concluding with several authentic 19th-century recipes. The highly unlikely accidental detective here is Bridget Heaney, a young Irish immigrant abandoned by her father and taken off the streets (where she was a highly skilled 12-year-old pickpocket) to be reared in an orphanage, an orphanage where she learned to cook. On of the recommendation of one of his maids, a rich Sephardic Jew hires Bridget as a sous-chef to replace the previous one who had been having a sexual relationship with his son. Except during special religious occasions, the Golds do not keep a Kosher kitchen. On her first day of work, Bridget discovers the son’s body squeezed into a kitchen cabinet.

Bridget’s kindly employer Mr. Gold is convinced that his son’s murder has something to do with the dismissed cook and believes that an Irish girl could discover more in the slums of New York City than a wealthy Jew. In return for her investigation, he promises to assist Bridget, of whom he has grown quite fond, to help find her missing sister.

As she points out in her introduction, Ms. Temple had much help from the New York Historical Society and I found intriguing her description of life among the Sephardic Jews, who settled New York City very early — Mr. Gold’s ancestor is one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. Also intriguing is the description of Blackwell’s Island, where Bridget goes to look for her sister. Mr. Gold says, “This is where New York deposits all its misery.” The Small Pox Hospital on the island alone handled 7000 patients a year.

Shirley Tallman, the author of “The Russian Hill Murders” is a screenwriter as well as novelist and it shows with dialogue and stock characters from movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. I could not help but cast the movie version. This is the second novel in which her feminist lawyer, Sarah Woolson, the first female lawyer in San Francisco (Katharine Hepburn, I would think) appears. She is the daughter of a prominent judge (Lionel Barrymore), but is unwelcome at her law firm, which hired her without realizing her sex.

On her own initiative, she sets out to find who poisoned four people — only she thinks there is a connection between the deaths. Although she is an “avowed spinster,” she cannot help but be attracted to a dashing ship owner (Clark Gable), who is also one of the numerous murder suspects and possibly the most handsome man Sarah has ever seen.

Although one of her law partners (Fred MacMurray) disapproves of women lawyers, he follows her around like a puppy and grumblingly adheres to every wish. Intermixed among this is the entire cast of a Charlie Chan movie, including a vituperative Chinese cook, whom most think is the poisoner, and a Tong master with an evil reputation, but whom Sarah likes. When she is beckoned to his quarters in Chinatown, she is blindfolded, for it is too dangerous to disclose his location. It is the Tong master who will hire Sarah to defend the Chinese cook.

How much of this is deliberate “camp” I am not sure, but it has its amusing moments. Sarah complains much of women playing tennis with trains of too large bustles, but when an illiterate young Irish brougham driver (Mickey Rooney), who adores her, tries to assist her into his vehicle, Sarah says, “Naturally I required no assistance, but I allowed the lad to aid me since I feel it is important for the younger generation to learn proper etiquette.”

As in Perry Mason, the book ends with Sarah successfully defending the Chinese cook accused of the four poisonings and a most unlikely courtroom confession, extracted by Sarah, puts all aright. Once again, I did not, but an alert reader will spot the clues that lead Sarah to her conclusion about who the murderer is.

Lloyd Shaw is a retired professor of English.

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