- - Friday, November 9, 2012

By Chris Pavone
Crown, $26, 336 pages

By Simon Lelic
Penguin, $15, 320 pages

Kate Moore is the kind of woman who can kill, and who has killed, in-between being a mother to her two small sons and a wife to her rather nondescript husband, Dexter. Only one killing seems to haunt her, but she has been well trained to control her emotions.

So it is no surprise that she effortlessly dominates “The Expats,” a complicated tangle of a psychological thriller in which Chris Pavone weaves a web through which wriggle agents of the CIA, the FBI, Interpol, assorted war criminals and women who possess a talent for cold savagery in addition to good grooming.

When Kate relocates with her family to Luxemburg because of Dexter‘s new and amorphous banking job, she also makes a major change in her own professional life. She has never told Dexter that she worked for 15 years as an operations officer for the CIA. Nor did she tell him that the job involved shooting people. She ostensibly cuts all ties with the agency although there are a few loopholes she can climb back thtough, as one might expect.

But the move to Luxembourg is not what she expected. She finds it boring to be plunged into domesticity, cooking, scrubbing and babysitting her two small sons. What she does find surprising is that she becomes more than curious about the new job of the previously predictable Dexter. He is so mysterious about his work and what it involves that it rouses her suspicion, a situation in which Kate presumably sees the irony that he might be involved in intelligence work.

It turns out that it’s worse than that. Dexter is being pursued by the FBI and Interpol on a case that appears to involve the embezzlement of $25 to $50 million Euros. Moreover, Julia and Bill, two expats who have made a point of befriending Kate, appear to be those chasing Dexter. As in most espionage mysteries, nothing is what it seems, and Dexter does turn out to have an explanation for his behavior tht is not as histrionic as it would appear.

But if there’s one thing Kate knows how to do it is dig out facts, and she has little else to occupy her mind. What she unravels is a scheme of remarkable complexity that is skilfully told but is still confusing. Mr. Pavone plunges around with a plot-load of surprises as everyone cons everyone else, and he moves smoothly between the mundane and the melodramatic. He has a nice touch with the denouement that has both Bill and Kate clutching their Berettas under the table as the details of a detente are worked out. The spinning of the plot is ingenious and Mr. Pavone has created a fascinating, faintly sinister character in Kate whose previous career will probably warrant another book.

Simon Lelic‘s “The Child Who” is a book as unrelievedly grim as its topic: the bloody murder of a child by a child. The ghastly killing of a young girl by a young boy is almost matched by the utter misery of the 12-year-old killer and the ripples of the truly violent reaction that spread through the stricken families.

Dysfunctional families proliferate in Mr. Lelic‘s pages. Lawyer Leo Curtice has saddled himself with the task of defending 12- year-old Daniel Blake, who has admitted killing 11-year-old Felicity Forbes. Even his teenage daughter Ellie wants to know why he would take on such a nightmare, and his wife Megan is concealing deep-seated family problems. The description of a stick used on a child’s body found mildewed and bound with wire from disused fairy lights is something you don’t want to read twice. Even Leo Curtice has trouble explaining his desire to defend what would seem to be the indefensible, especially when he begins to receive messages threatening his own estranged dauhter Ellie and communications break down with his wife.

Based on a real life crime in England, the book digs deep into the darkest side of human frailty. It is the kind of crime that makes a community explode in vengeful anger, and the Curtice family bears the brunt of the kind of rage that recognizes no reason.

Not even the sentencing of Daniel Blake assuages that rage because the legal system isn’t prepared to deal with a 12-year-old killer. And a new psychological nightmare overwhelms Curtice when his daughter disappears. There is no real resolution in such a situation, although the Curtices succeed in repairing their marriage when the truth about their daughter’s disappearance is finally told. Leo, the lawyer torn by a compassion he can neither understand nor explain, emerges as a tragic figure coping with horror, forced to realize the darkness that lies around him. Mr. Lelic is a strong, evocative writer capable of casting a grim light on what many would seek never to see. It is not a book for the squeamish.

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

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