Roundup September 2006

Dark Passage

A selective investigation of recent mysteries and thrillers

The word sleazy shows up several times in Andrew Klavan’s Damnation Street (Harcourt), and it certainly has the right address. In this third installment of his Weiss and Bishop series, a prostitute is on the run from both the woebegone obsessive who would be her savior and the artful degenerate bent on loving her quickly to death. The hunt winds through motor hotels on the edge of town, a desert bordello, Reno, and other unwholesome stopping points, and through a family history of drug addiction, blackmail, and parricide. Klavan’s confidently wry style keeps things punched up throughout, not least in his fight sequences, which are deliberately as ludicrous as they are violent (here with martial-arts noises):

There was the Fu Manchu guy rushing at him, going hwa hwoo hwee and so on—and also wielding that goddamned Chinese broadsword Bishop had noticed on the wall … Gripping the broadsword’s handle in one hand, he made the wide, curved silver blade spin and twirl through blurring crisscrosses and figure eights. “Hwa! Hwoo! Hwee!” he remarked again. And all the while, the black-and-red scarf flying from the sword’s pommel flapped and spiraled, adding to Bishop’s distraction.

If having this much fun with a tale of assassination and romantic melancholy is wrong, who wants to be right?

It takes a whole different kind of confidence to write a somewhat decorous whodunit like Robert Goddard’s Hand in Glove (reissued by Delta). Goddard sets in motion a transcontinental free-for-all over the legacy of a dreamy dead poet, and barely halfway through the who gets done in, leaving readers to 200 pages of subplot. But what subplot: rising like a menacing crescendo above the noisy, crowded orchestra pit of the narrative’s first half, it reveals the discord and treacheries therein to be mere noodling. The scope and seriousness of the situation dawn slowly, on both the characters and the reader, making everyone’s belated awareness all the more gripping. On a sentence level, Goddard’s writing is determinedly unshowy, but any author who can manage so complex an array of characters (themselves admirably complex), who builds suspense around a hidden map to buried treasure, and who casts moustache-twirling Spanish fascists in the role of über-baddies, knows how to have a good time.

As for baddies, this one’s new to me: a pitiful old woman with a colostomy bag. And yet Karin Fossum’s latest, When the Devil Holds the Candle (Harcourt), finds such a character practicing passive evil—in what is basically a heartsickening tale of mothers and sons. Combining the deadly ennui of Camus’s Stranger with elements of Stephen King’s Misery and Hitchcock’s Psycho, this is an engagingly repulsive book. Never mind that Inspector Sejer, the ostensible star, spends most of his time fretting about his new girlfriend’s taste for hashish.

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