- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

SStephen Booth has rapidly gained a reputation as one of the elite British mystery writers. His new book, One Last Breath (Bantam, $25, 416 pages), the fifth in a series, enhances that reputation. His characters are, as always, interesting. The mystery is complex. And the images concerning “breath” are intricately woven into the book, a literary technique that most mystery writers, for better or worse, avoid.

“One Last Breath” takes place in England’s Lake Country, and once again Detective Constable Ben Cooper teams up with his superior officer, Detective Sgt. Diane Frye. Their relationship is testy, though they both half-secretly admire each other. Unlike Frye, Cooper is not university educated, though he knows more about novels and poetry (Frye has never been able to see the point of fiction). Cooper also does not always adhere to the departmental guidelines.

In July 2005, Mansell Quinn is released from Sudbury Prison after serving more than 13 years for the brutal stabbing murder of his mistress, who was the wife and neighbor of a friend. When the night after Quinn’s release his ex-wife is found stabbed to death, Quinn is the obvious suspect.

Cooper is intrigued that Quinn pleaded guilty to the murder of his mistress 13 years ago, but that for the last seven years in prison he claimed innocence, even when an admission would have won him an earlier release. To Frye’s chagrin, Cooper spends much time reviewing the older case, which more and more puzzles him. Among his fellow officers he wonders if Quinn was guilty of the two murders. Cooper’s position is further complicated by the fact that his dead father, whom Cooper revered, was the arresting officer and may have cleaned up some evidence from the first murder.

The novel is dedicated to “the men and women who explore the scariest place there is — the world beneath our feet.” Cooper first appears in the book as a volunteer in a cave- rescue practice session, something he does not enjoy. The caves that dot the Lake Country figure much in this novel.

Victoria Blake’s Cutting Blades (Berkley Prime Crime, $14, 340 pages) is the second novel featuring private detective Samantha Falconer, a former world judo champion who supplements her meager income by giving self-defense lessons to women. She is hired to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an immensely talented rower for Oxford University.

Her investigation is complicated by conflicting stories about the Oxford student, regarded by most as almost saintly, yet who the year before was accused of rape by an Oxford barmaid. Falconer’s personal life, meanwhile, is complicated by the appearance in London of her father. According to her mother, her father had died when she was four years old.

England is much too large to account for the number of coincidences that occur in this book. But the mystery of the rower’s disappearance intrigues, as does the story of Falconer’s father. He is fleeing British secret agents, who are fearful he will reveal his role in the assassination of Irish Republican Army members and in fermenting riots between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. (Whether governments act outside the law as much as they do in so many recent mystery novels, I must leave to the historian or journalist.)

In John Gardner’s Troubled Midnight (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 264 pages), set in wartime England, Scotland Yard’s Detective Superintendent Tommy Livermore is so much so the stereotypical British detective that his characterization teeters on the edge of satire.

A graduate of Eton and Oxford, he is the son of the Earl and Countess of Kingscote. At one point he tells his assistant (and lover), Detective Sgt. Suzie Mountford, that he spoke to his “ma” last night. “All very smart, she’d been with Pa to have tea with Mr. and Mrs. King. Buck House and all that crap, eh?” (His mother is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and his father is a friend of Winston Churchill.)

The two are investigating the brutal murder and torture of a high British military officer, a murder also being investigated by the Intelligence Services, which think the torture was to extract information about the coming invasion of Europe.

The reader is introduced to the spy in the first chapter when he makes a secret trip to France to meet his German spymasters. Of him we learn only that he was long an admirer of Adolf Hitler, that he thought England had no chance against Hitler’s armies, and that he slipped back into uniform on the U-Boat carrying him back to England. Identifying him among the suspects is the task of the detectives as well as the reader.

The greatest joys of this book are the details of life in England in 1943: for instance, the “British Restaurants” opened in 1940 by the government to ensure that anyone could get one good and coupon-free meal a day. The meals cost a shilling. Livermore prefers the Ritz, but even he eats at one of the restaurants with his staff.

The author is a WWII veteran. Although the story of the planning of the Normandy Invasion is familiar to all, only a more mature reader will follow all the allusions to the life and popular entertainment of the 1940s.

Nora Roberts’ Angels Fall (G.P. Putnam, $25.95, 439 pages) is her 150th book. That gives me pause, but it does not read as if hastily written. The characters are fully developed and the description of the Teton Mountains is detailed.

The novel is a combination of a mystery and a romance novel, with one mystery and two romances. Reece Gilmore, the central female character, has fled her native Boston where she survived a massacre in a restaurant where she was a chef. She is physically and psychologically damaged by the experience.

She takes a job as a cook in a Wyoming diner, and shortly afterwards while on a hike, witnesses a man murdering a woman. The police can find no evidence of the murder, and quickly the people of the village (population 623) come to conclude she has imagined it.

Only a mysterious writer living in a cabin believes her, and the two will become romantically involved as they set out to solve a murder that even the heroine sometimes doubts occurred. The villain is well-hidden by Ms. Roberts, but the alert reader should at least have suspicions.

John Saul’s In the Dark of Night (Ballantine Books, $25.95, 325 pages) is a well-written book that could be described as the Hardy Boys on testosterone. Three high-school students from an affluent suburb of Chicago are spending the summer with their parents and siblings on an isolated lake in northern Wisconsin. Here their idyllic summer of fishing and lusting after the local girls is marred by the antagonism of the boys in the local town and a lurking hermit.

The high school students discover an old carriage house with a secret room containing an odd, seemingly eclectic collection of items. They also find cryptic comments and the prices paid for the items.

The three teenagers set out to solve the mystery of the collection, but the author’s introduction of supernatural elements into the story ruins what could have been a very good book. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the Hardy Boys, where things are always rationally explained in the end.

Lloyd Shaw is a retired professor of English.

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