Mysteries that meld the paranormal and the mundane
For British folk guitarist Ringan Laine, who also restores period architecture, an otherworldly adventure begins when Albert Wychsale, a wealthy client in Somerset, England, gives him an 18th-century cottage and barn on his estate in lieu of payment for his work. We soon discover that Laine has received more than a domicile -- he's gotten its ghosts as well.
Thus begins Deborah Grabien's "The Weaver and the Factory Maid," which draws part of its inspiration from a traditional folk ballad of the same name. Wychsale, it turns out, is well aware of the Napoleonic-era ghosts but hasn't really pursued their origins, as Laine and his lover, the theatrical Penelope Wintercraft-Hawkes, are compelled to do.
"This is my house, Penelope," Laine says, after an early, lavender-scented encounter with the ghostly maid Betsy. "I am not going to be shut out of my own bedroom by a succulent succubus." Soon, Betsy's lover appears to Laine's musical colleague, the resolute Jane Castle, who proposes that murder is part of the ghosts' tale.
The first in a series, Grabien's novel is filled with chills and intrigue, with dread and compassion, and it's set in a cozy place that's utterly disquieting.
Her dialogue, though bursting with arcane references and local colloquialisms, allows the characters to shine through: The banter Laine and his Penny toss about is particularly priceless. And she builds the kind of sophisticated suspense that surrounds and embraces us to make our minds spin and the hair on the back of our neck rise in this enchanted tale.
Ghosts also appear to the title character in Dean Koontz's "Odd Thomas," but they're a malevolent bunch, foreshadowing death and destruction throughout Southern California. Some of the ghosts -- or bodachs, as they're called here -- appeal to the 20-year-old Thomas for help and consolation. One is Elvis Presley, who sobs as he pines for his mother, a yearning Odd Thomas comes to understand.
When an unsavory man followed by a cadre of bodachs appears at the diner where he's a short-order cook, the earnest Thomas investigates. The Fungus Man, as Thomas dubs him, turns out to be trouble: He keeps a file cabinet in his apartment that holds articles and dossiers on serial killers and mass murderers. Fungus Man has torn the page for Aug. 15 from his calendar, and Thomas expects catastrophe on that soon-to-arrive date, unaware there's a link to Presley, whose mother died on Aug. 15, 1958.
Koontz is a master of melding the supernatural with the commonplace, and in "Odd Thomas" he's created a world that defies logic yet seems real, as reflected in the calm, professional relationship between Thomas and Wyatt Porter, the local police chief, who benefits from his insight. A deft bit of misdirection puts Thomas in jeopardy, and Chief Porter too, and the young man must persist to save others as well as himself, despite repeated gruesome discoveries.
Koontz's writing -- crackling with dry, tongue-in-cheek wit -- defines the paranormal Thomas and befits the story, and a meeting with Thomas's parents helps explain the young man's needs. A wound from a fork, a clue in a tattoo, a corpse at his feet, or the appearance of mayhem-minded bodachs won't keep Odd Thomas from answering a "subtle and unmistakable pull" to save his topsy-turvy world, despite dire consequences.
Peter Zak, a Cambridge, Mass.-based forensic neuropsychologist, is once again drawn into misadventure in "Obsessed," the fourth entry in the series by G. H. Ephron, the pen name for Hallie Ephron, a journalist, and Donald Davidoff, a forensic psychologist. In this case, Zak is enticed by an attractive and perhaps manipulative colleague, Emily Ryan, who is being stalked by an unknown perpetrator.
Accepting Ryan's invitation to observe the use of a new, high-powered magnetic resonance imagining machine, Zak finds himself in conflict with its proprietors, who may be on the verge of a breakthrough in their study of a form of dementia.
When a scientist at the lab is killed in an unlikely accident, and an elderly uncle of Zak's girlfriend, private investigator Annie Squires, is suddenly taken ill after he's had an MRI, Zak looks for links among the events. Fortunately, he's got more than good intentions on his side. He's got Annie, who doesn't suffer fools gladly and knows how to move ahead without distraction.
Ephron and Davidoff have an easy way with medical terminology, and they bring us deep into the day-to-day life of researchers and healers, where the affirmed may be worth more dead than alive. Ryan's relentless need for validation makes her at the same time an ideal victim and villain, thus helping to build suspense to the end.
If Squires seems to cast a callous eye on the researchers, their actions more than justify her perspective. The obsessed, it seems, aren't only the troubled psychiatric patients in this slice of our world.
Jim Fusilli is a novelist and critic. His most recent book is "Tribeca Blues" (Putnam).
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.