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Notable Books | Four noteworthy mystery/crime novels reviewed by Susan Olasky

Hard Row

Margaret Maron continues her series featuring Deborah Knott, a local judge in rural Colleton County outside Raleigh, N.C. The discovery of a pair of legs in a ditch alongside the road leads Deborah's husband, Deputy Sheriff Dwight Bryant, on a search for the rest of the body and the identities of the victim and the murderer.

Maron explores social history and the changes coming to rural North Carolina, including those brought by the increasing presence of migrant laborers from Mexico. Deborah's large family provides the books with enriching subplots and complications and keeps Deborah and Dwight, newlyweds recently joined by Dwight's 8-year-old son from a previous marriage, from becoming cardboard characters.

A Fatal Grace

Louise Penny writes traditional mysteries set in the quaint town of Three Pines, Quebec, populated by a modern cast of characters that includes a pair of married artists, a gay innkeeping couple, a black psychologist turned bookstore owner, and a misanthropic poet. Despite the potential for political correctness, Penny writes satisfying stories in which gore takes a back seat and murder grows out of human sin and family secrets.

Armand Gamache, the detective from Montreal who heads up the investigation into the electrocution murder of a New Age writer at a curling competition, is charming and elegant, wise and patient. He loves teaching his young associates and has sacrificed career advancement to pursue truth.


Lena, a fingerprint specialist in wintry and decaying Syracuse, is adopted and has a weird partial memory of being raised by an ape mother before her adoption. Her intuitive powers suggest something odd about her. A rash of infant deaths looks like a coincidence until one of the mothers insists her baby was murdered.

Abu-Jaber uses the crime genre to explore questions of origins and memory. Lena's search to discover whether a killer exists becomes wrapped up in her own search for her past. The book's lyrical writing and sensitive depiction of Lena's awakening may appeal to those who don't care whether she gets the police details right. Cautions: bad language and sex.

City of Fire

Crime fiction should explore darkness in order to reveal something about the human predicament-but a lot of modern crime fiction explores darkness in order to shock or titillate. The violence is gruesome and described in great detail. It's often sexual, and the killer is so bizarre in his perversions that he might as well be an animal since he sheds no light on human depravity-other than to suggest that we can always sink to greater depths.

City of Fire is a well-written, suspenseful novel featuring a deranged, steroid-injecting serial killer with an uncanny ability to be invisible to his victims. It may be memorable-but who needs those kinds of memories?


Josephine Tey was the pen name for Elizabeth Mackintosh, a playwright and writer of detective fiction during the genre's golden age between the world wars. When the current members of the Mystery Writers of America chose their 100 best mysteries of all time, The Daughter of Time came in at No. 4.

In it police detective Alan Grant is flat on his back in a hospital bed after injuring himself falling through a trap door. To occupy his mind, an actress friend brings him a collection of portraits of famous historical figures associated with mysteries of one sort or another. Drawn to a portrait of Richard III, Grant enlists a young American doing research at the British Museum to help reexamine Richard's assumed complicity in the death of his two nephews.

Tey is a smart writer who assumes her readers can follow a tangled historical trail. She also assumes they are biblically literate. The result is a compelling narrative.


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