- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

Swedish writer Henning Mankell specializes in complex and intricately plotted thrillers, but in Depths (The New Press, $26.95, 416 pages) he has plumbed the darkness of one sick soul.

His account of the descent into madness of a Swedish naval officer is more grim than fascinating. The officer, on a secret mission to take depth readings in the ocean around the Stockholm archipelago, seems initially a contentedly married man, but he becomes gruesomely obsessed with a young woman living like an animal on a deserted island. His career, his home and his life are twisted and destroyed as he sinks deeper into a relationship that defies credibility.

While Lars Tobiasson-Svartman is believable as a remote and unpredictably neurotic man, his sudden plunge into violent insanity is presented without any rationale that might arouse empathy or sympathy. Only his wife, abandoned and pregnant at home, retains enough humanity to become pitiful: She winds up in an institution as a result of her husband’s behavior, which explodes into sudden violence and death for those unfortunate enough to encounter him.

The book’s focus on this strangely one-dimensional character diminishes the level of plot and characterization that has come to be expected of Mr. Mankell. Its unrelieved bleakness also deprives it of the interest his books usually command.

The Woods (Dutton, $26.95, 416 pages), the story of attorney Paul Copeland, who lost his sister in a series of bloody teenage murders, is made gripping by Harlan Coben’s capacity for surprise twists and turns, especially in his chillingly effective climax.

Using the deep woods, and the legacy of doom that surrounds those who survived the night of the “Summer Slasher,” is an appropriate ploy for a mystery that links the nightmare of the past to the present. The developing situation is especially difficult for Paul, whose mind has blotted out some of the most terrible moments of the killings.

The memory of the crimes in the woods, for which one man has already gone to jail, is resurrected by the discovery of a corpse. It turns out to be a man believed to have died many years ago in those slayings. A chain of events is set in motion that reunites Copeland with a lost love who was with him on that dramatic night, and it revives his determination to find his sister, whose body was missing when the corpses were found. A controversial rape case becomes an unexpected bridge to Copeland’s past as the pieces of a grim jigsaw fall into place.

Mr. Coben’s talent for plotting is demonstrated as the book links the darkness of the past to the problems of the present in order to solve the mystery of the woods.

It is in keeping with the atmosphere of the book that a happy ending is left in doubt. When all the facts are revealed, Copeland’s future may become the last victim of the slayings in the woods.

The old mill town of Bedford, Maine, is the real villain of Sarah Langan’s The Keeper (HarperTorch, $6.99, 400 pages), a chronicle of the kind of cursed community that recalls Edgar Allan Poe. The book’s prologue is especially well done, with its portrayal of Susan Marley, the living specter who stalks the streets, ultimately disclosed as a pathetic victim sinking into insanity as a result of her father molesting her as a child.

Yet it is the town itself that emerges as doomed to devour its own and itself. Few escape the curse of Bedford as it collapses in death and flames. The book is unrelieved in its account of past and future misery, and there are moments when readers may look forward to getting to the hideous climax without any hope that it will offer more than a macabre justice.

But the story is rescued by its smoothly flowing writing style and a plot that, while predictable, has the capacity to hold the kind of unwilling attention usually captured by watching a snake’s attack on a helpless rabbit. It’s not so much that you like it as that it’s hard to put it down.

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

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