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Notable Books | Four recent novels of mystery and misery reviewed by Susan Olasky

The Condition

Jennifer Haigh writes so well and with such respect for her characters that she sucks readers into their misery. The book begins at a moment in the McKotch family that signals change, although none of them understands it at the time. Haigh depicts a family's disintegration, accelerated by the discovery that the daughter has Turner's syndrome, a condition that keeps her from going through puberty.

As the novel continues, family members judge each other and erect protective barriers. They look to work, drugs, success, and family pedigree for happiness. Critics point out that Haigh is writing about the human condition, which explains why her ending is unconvincing. Acceptance is an ineffective cure for what ails the McKotches.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Part dog story, part retelling of Hamlet, this book is not a cheery read. Edgar's parents Gar and Trudy raise Sawtelle dogs, a breed Gar's father originated to be super companion dogs. Edgar, born mute but able to hear, has a mystical ability to communicate with the dogs using signs and eye contact. When his father dies suddenly and Edgar is unable to call for help, life at the farm begins to decay, especially when Gar's brother Claude comes back to help with the dogs.

The novel is too long, but it's full of beautiful scenes involving dog/boy interaction and the business of raising and training dogs. From the first pages of this novel, events are set into action, but fate controls all. They unfold in all their deadly fullness by the end of the book.

An Expert in Murder

Josephine Tey was a nom de plume of playwright/mystery writer Elizabeth Mackintosh. Upson makes Tey the protagonist in this clever mystery set in the 1930s London theater scene, notable for bohemian ambience and sexual freedom. Tey's long-running play, Richard of Bordeaux, is in its final week when a murder occurs-and the victim turns out to be one of Tey's biggest fans.

With the help of police inspector Archie Penrose, who bears a resemblance to Tey's fictional detective Alan Grant, Tey unravels the threads of the murder and discovers that her past is connected to the crime. Although not graphically depicted, adultery and homosexuality are part of the theater world.

I Shall Not Want

From the beginning of this series, Julia Spencer-Fleming has skirted the line between romance and mystery genres. Set in a small town in upstate New York, the first several books have female Episcopal priest/National Guard reservist Clare Fergusson romantically drawn to married police chief Russ Van Alstyne.

In this novel, both Fergusson and Van Alstyne wrestle with guilt and anger over the death of Van Alstyne's wife in the previous book. They are brought together when the priest gets involved in outreach to migrant workers while the chief ties a murder to the migrants-or to a drug gang from New York City. Fergusson often calls on God and prays, but this book ends with her committing graphically depicted adultery in body, not just mind.

Spotlight

Stephanie Meyer sold 1.5 million copies of Twilight, the first book in her vampire romance series aimed at teen girls. Last month when the fourth and final book, Breaking Dawn, came out, it sold 1.3 million copies in the first 24 hours, second only to Harry Potter books.

The protagonist of the series, Bella, is an ordinary teen girl who falls in love with the beautiful and icy cold Edward, a vampire from a family of vampires that feeds on animals, not humans. The earlier books have some unconsummated sexual tension, but in book four Bella turns 18, she and Edward are engaged, and they plan to take the plunge-even though neither one understands much about what this means.

Some reviewers argue that the books are pro-abstinence, but I doubt that: Book four reads like a bosom-heaving romance, the kind that might encourage girls to skim the book to find the next "hot" part.

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