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Noteworthy books

Notable Books | Four mysteries/thrillers reviewed by Susan Olasky

Down River

Adam Chase, acquitted of murder five years before and exiled from his home by his father, is drawn back by a phone call from an old friend. He finds the town divided, with his father's refusal to sell land at the heart of the division. When another murder occurs on the farm, Chase is again under suspicion.

Hart's gritty tale shows how sin, covered-up and allowed to fester, produces still greater sin. Greed, sexual sin, anger, resentment, and covetousness tear apart Chase's family. By the end he is not quite ready to forgive but he begins to understand "how human is human and the hand of God is in all things." (R-rated language and sex.)

The Ghost

The ghostwriting main character usually writes autobiographies of British celebrities and sports stars. An unlikely choice to fill in as ghostwriter for Adam Lang, a Tony Blair--like former prime minister of Britain, he gets hired after the first ghost drowns. Writing under a tight deadline and even tighter security on Martha's Vineyard, the ghostwriter begins to uncover connections that put him at risk.

The conspiracy at the heart of the novel grows out of the war on terror and involves the CIA. Some of the family intrigue within the novel may mean more to Brits, but Harris doesn't let paranoid politics overwhelm his well-told story. (R-rated language and sex.)

The Careful Use of Compliments

McCall Smith's not-quite mysteries have become popular because of his charming way of narrating inner conversations, such as those of Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics: "She was a philosopher, who thought about what we should do and what we should not do."

Isabel can't make a decision without thinking through its ethical implications, and in this novel she is adjusting to changes in her life-she's a new single mom, although the baby's father has proposed. And the board of the academic journal she edits has asked for her resignation. The possibility that a painting is a forgery arouses her curiosity and leads her to investigate.

Bones to Ashes

How likely is it that an old skeleton bought from a pawnshop is related to a series of more recent discoveries-the remains of teenage girls? Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist working in Montreal, makes the connections. She helps her friend (and sometimes lover) Ryan close cold cases, and by studying the clues left in bones even finds out what happened to a childhood friend.

Kathy Reichs, who is also a forensic anthropologist, is sure-footed when describing the science and technique of her work. Too often her characters are sketchlike, and her writing has become increasingly hurried: "Dark. Flat. About the size of my thumb."

Spotlight

The Mystery Writers of America recently published a list of the 100 top mysteries of all time, as chosen by members (mysterywriters.org). The top 10:

1. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

2. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

3. Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Edgar Allen Poe

4. The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey

5. Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow

6. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré

7. The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

8. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

9. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

10. And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

On his Atlantic Monthly blog, James Fallows says he sometimes feels guilty about reading crime novels. He's devised a test to help him decide if a book is worthwhile: Can he remember something about it a month or six months later? "Surprisingly often, a great book is great because it presents a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn't thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards."

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