- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

In Joseph Caldwell’s The Pig Did It (Delphinium, $22.95, 195 pages), it almost doesn’t matter who did it, because this is such an enchanting story told in graceful prose lilting with irreverent Irish humor. What makes it even more delightful is that this is the first in Mr. Caldwell’s forthcoming “Pig Trilogy.”

It is a novel full of the deliciously unexpected, an account of a young American, Aaron McCloud, who is distracted from his romantic problems by what may be one of the great pigs of literature.

This pig is a formidable animal which thinks nothing of digging up a corpse in the garden of McCloud’s aunt, Kitty McCloud, who almost steals the book from the pig. She is a best-selling novelist who has made her fortune by writing books in which she blithely corrects what she sees as the failings of the classics and endows them with happy endings.

She tinkers with such books as Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” in which Kitty has Mr. Rochester throwing himself from the burning house, and his mad wife surviving to become best friends with the pious heroine.

Such an aunt is unlikely to have a predictable reaction to a dead body in her garden, and she doesn’t. She accuses her neighbor, Lolly McKeever, of killing “Declan Tovey, the last of the good stout men” because he had spurned her (Lolly’s) romantic advances. Who actually killed Tovey is revealed in a hilarious finale warning of the danger of laughing at ludicrous best-sellers, or the even more severe consequences of kicking a pig.

Especially this pig.

You can hardly wait for part two of the “Pig Trilogy.”

•••

Perhaps only Ian Rankin would visualize spies in forms of beetles. And probably only Ian Rankin would write a spy novel full of reflections on the habits of beetles in comparison with those involved in intelligence work.

It is interesting that “Watchman” (published now in the United States for the first time) is one of the earlier works of an author noted for his portrayal of “tartan noir” crime featuring the grim and gritty detective John Rebus whose territory is the grim and gritty streets of Edinburgh.

The book is fraught with the bleakness of mood that afflicts those who feel that what they are doing they have done too long, and that what they dread most is catching up with them. It is vintage Rankin, concise and succinct in its delineation of a world of shadows and betrayal.

He begins the book with what may be a classic description of an intelligence agent — “Miles Flint wore glasses: they were his only distinguishing feature.”

This a spy who “thought of the death watch beetle, ticking like a time bomb, and of the whirligig beetle, skating across the surfaces of ponds.” This is a spy who has “never received a more handsome gift in his life” than his son’s present of a year’s adoption of a dung beetle at the London zoo. On a sardonic note, the author observes, “What his (Flint’s) colleagues did not know was that he had found counterparts for them all in the beetle world.”

Yet Flint’s beetle fixation has its risk for his intelligence work because “he no longer killed beetles and had no desire to exhibit anyone else’s killings. He was content to read about beetles”for he had learned the value of life.”

Flint is also making mistakes in his work and when his personal negligence contributes to the death of a foreign agent in London, he reacts dangerously by launching his own private investigation into those around him, including his unfaithful wife. He becomes haunted by concern about how much people know about him.

“It was he who was supposed to be on the watch, on the move. Hunting what? Hunting his own fantasy of a goliath beetle, a double agent?”

Flint’s fears explode into peril when a routine mission to Belfast and consequent clash with terrorists put him at risk while providing the answers he seeks. He survives only to continue to face a life in hiding and never quite loses sight of his obsession with the insect world.

At a moment of danger he asks an Irish ally,”Why is it that human colonies work toward chaos while insect colonies work toward harmony?”

“You and your bloody insects,” is the understandable response.

•••

The world of psychological investigator Maisie Dobbs is a step back in time to post-World War I when Britain was still staggering from four years of carnage in France and the ensuing economic problems at home. What makes Ms. Dobbs intriguing is that she was in the vanguard of a new breed of independent women willing to rely on masculine mentors for basic training, yet tough and pragmatic enough to have confidence in what they could accomplish by themselves.

Her feminism is not that born of faddism but stems from a genuine belief in herself and the role she is prepared to play in a different and difficult time. Undeterred, Maisie marches on.

Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs’ creator, was born in England, and recreates the rural scene she obviously knows so well. In An Incomplete Revenge (Henry Holt, $24, 320 pages), she offers a fascinating portrayal of a village in Kent beset and besieged not only by the darkness of the war years, but the feudalism that still grasps the townspeople. Skillfully drawn are the lingering class problems and their impact on the personal relationship of a couple from different sides of the social fence.

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

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