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Notable Books | Four mysteries with a strong sense of place reviewed by Susan Olasky

A Plague of Secrets

John Lescroart's San Francisco-based police/courtroom procedural's are great entertainment, and he makes the city-its politics, weather, and food-serve his stories. His main characters, defense attorney Dismas Hardy and homicide lieutenant Abe Glitsky, are close friends and frequent opponents, as they both pursue justice from their different vantage points. In this chapter of the long-running series, Hardy defends from a murder charge the wife of a prominent developer who owns a coffee shop from which marijuana is sold. Meanwhile, because Glitsky is distracted by a life-threatening injury suffered by his son, he fails to oversee properly the case put together by his young subordinates.

Whisper to the Blood

Stabenow's Kate Shugak stories are set in a huge national wildlife refuge in Alaska. In this one, a mining company discovers a huge deposit of gold and hires an attractive female athlete to sell the benefits of a mine to the locals. Then, after someone murders a watchman and bad guys on snow machines ambush and rob park rats, private detective Shugak realizes she's been cut out of the information loop. Stabenow portrays vividly Alaska as a harsh frontier and presents a nuanced picture of resource development, but graphic sex scenes and a mention that Kate was reading-and loving-Christopher Hitchens' diatribe against religion seem superfluous to the plot.

A Rule Against Murder

When Armande Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie arrive for their annual anniversary stay at Manoir Bellechasse in rural Quebec, they discover that an unpleasant family, the Finneys, has reserved the other five rooms in the old inn. Chief Inspector Gamache expects to be on vacation, but when one of the Finneys is murdered, he must investigate. It soon becomes clear that the murderer is either one of the Finneys (a strange, secretive bunch) or one of the inn's employees, another group of odd ducks. Penny's previous books-all set in the village of Three Pines-are more believable and interesting than this too-talky "cozy."

The Shanghai Moon

I had a hard time following the plot of this mystery, which involved the murder of private detective Lydia Chin's colleague and the search for his killer and some missing jewels. Rozan tells us the back story to the jewels through letters written from a Jewish refugee in Shanghai to her mother in pre-WWII Austria. Through more letters and diaries we learn the fate of the mother and the twisting journey of the jewels. Rozan depicts well New York's Chinatown and Chin's interactions with her aged mother, but her crime-solving methodology relies on bursts of inspiration and conveniently being in the right place at the right time.


Last year, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central, 2008) was a huge best-seller. Smith pulled his serial killer plot from a real 1980s case and set it several decades earlier in the post-WWII Stalinist-era Soviet Union. The protagonist, Leo Demidov, begins the novel as a Soviet true believer, a member of the state security force who routinely forces confessions from those who threaten the state. When he fails to denounce his wife as a spy, he's exiled from Moscow and demoted to the militia, where he expects the screws to tighten slowly, but he instead discovers the body of a young boy, which leads to a clandestine murder investigation.

Smith's grim rendering of that period, where people did terrible things to survive, makes the novel a difficult but compelling read. In The Secret Speech (Grand Central, 2009), Smith continues Demidov's story. Stalin is dead, Khrushchev is in power, Demidov has changed, but someone is trying to do away with Stalin's state-sanctioned murderers like Demidov-and we feel sympathy for both the victims and the changed victimizer.


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