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ON CRIME

The whiff of corruption, and Pomeroy's plonk

The Lizard’s Bite
By David Hewson
Delacorte, 432 pp., $22

Chinatown Beat
By Henry Chang
Soho, 204 pp., $22

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
By John Mortimer
Viking, 192 pp., $23.95

A sulfurous smell hovers over a Venice that is decaying of neglect and corruption in David Hewson's "The Lizard's Bite." The novel opens at night with boatman Piero Scacchi crossing the black water of the lagoon, like Charon rowing across the river Styx, to the Isola degli Arcangeli. The private island hangs "off the southern edge of Murano like a tear about to fall." But instead of ferrying the dead to Hades, Scacchi finds them. Glassmaker Uriel Arcangelo is burning to death in the glass foundry. The body of his wife, Bella, is ablaze in the furnace itself.

The deaths come at a most inconvenient time for local officials and for powerful English businessman Hugo Massiter, who is two weeks away from signing a lucrative deal, using public monies to purchase the island from the Arcangelo family. He doesn't care about the island's history of glassmaking; his plan is to shut down the foundry and turn the island into a tourist mecca. "There's only one industry here now and that's cramming as many gullible tourists into the streets as possible and fleecing them blind," Massiter says.

Eager for this Faustian deal to go through, the local police commissioner, Commissario Randazzo, turns the investigation over to virtual outsiders. Detectives Nic Costa and partner Gianni Peroni are Romans who have been on assignment in Venice and are about to start two-week vacations. The pair are joined by acerbic inspector Leo Falcone, their former boss, and by their girlfriends, Teresa Lupo and Emily Deacon, who have just arrived in Venice. Lupo is a medical examiner in the Rome morgue, and Deacon is a former FBI agent.

Randazzo makes it clear that he wants a quick verdict: Uriel killed his wife and then was himself killed. "I want a piece of paperwork done and I'm canceling your leave so you can do it." What was supposed to be a two-week vacation turns into a murder investigation, with the soul of Venice hanging in the balance.

This complex novel, a journey to hell and back, is leavened with food and humor and propelled by suspense and action. The atmospherics are extraordinary -- Hewson does Venice every bit as well as Tony Hillerman does New Mexico. The ending is particularly satisfying, like watching a multistage finale to a spectacular fireworks display.

Much closer to home, the New York Chinatown setting of Henry Chang's debut novel, "Chinatown Beat," is another version of hell, though the smell that lingers over the place isn't sul fur, it's lop cheung and hom yee -- pork sausage and salted fish. The protagonist, NYPD detective Jack Yu, transferred to the crime-ridden precinct thinking that his insider's knowledge of Chinatown (he grew up there) will help him to "make a difference."

For readers who relish noir suspense, it doesn't get much better than this stunning novel. Chang effortlessly interweaves a half-dozen interlocking plots, including the story of the murder of local crime kingpin Uncle Four by his desperate and beautiful mistress.

As Jack investigates, he is haunted by his father's recent death and by the murder he witnessed decades earlier of his best friend, Wing, at the hands of local gang members. Unforgettable character sketches fill the novel, including that of a heartbreaking 10-year-old rape victim; Ah Por, a wizened old woman who can touch an item and predict its owner's future; and Lucky, a cocky rising gang leader. But the central character is Chinatown, with the blind, smiling face it shows to the white tourist and its back alleys ringing with gunfire, its "brotherhoods" that mete out charity, violence, and vigilante justice, its tofu factories, sweatshops, and brothels teeming with people trying to survive the American dream.

The scent of small cigars and Pomeroy's plonk hovers over "Rumpole and the Reign of Terror," and 83-year-old author John Mortimer delivers another delightfully entertaining and thought-provoking novel featuring Horace Rumpole of the Bailey.

Rumpole's wife, Hilda ("She Who Must Be Obeyed"), has locked herself in the box room and is writing her memoirs while Rumpole, blithely unaware, goes about his business defending the petty thieves of the Timson clan, whose fees have kept the flat at Froxbury Mansion well stocked with "such luxury items as furniture polish, Fairy Liquid, scrubbing brushes and Vim."

Rumpole agrees to defend Dr. Mahmood Khan , a Pakistani physician arrested under the Terrorism Act. The government refuses to spell out the charges for fear that the source of the information will be revealed. Rumpole observes that the "so-called appeal" he finally manages to engineer "is carried on with all the good sense of a treasure hunt in a dark room from which the treasure had been carefully removed." On its serious side, this is an energetic send up of the suspension of civil rights and basic principles of justice in the name of freedom.

As ever, Mortimer proves himself master of the bon mot, cutting aside, and glorious run-on sentence. I join Rumpole in a toast to "new closing speeches, further hopefully devastating cross-examinations, more small cigars, and further bottles of Chateau Thames Embankment stretching away into a more or less contented future."

Hallie Ephron is the author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style," nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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