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On Crime

Murder most macabre

Email|Print| Text size + By Hallie Ephron
November 25, 2007

Last Rituals
By Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
Morrow 314 pp., $23.95

The Darkest Evening of the Year
By Dean Koontz
Bantam, 354 pp., $27

Hidden Moon
By James Church
Thomas Dunne, 293 pp., $23.95

The latest in a rash of topnotch crime fiction coming out of Iceland is Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's "Last Rituals." Set at a university in Reykjavik, this one is steeped in witch hunts and medieval ritual. It opens with a grisly murder - wealthy German graduate student Harald Guntlieb's corpse topples from an alcove at the university onto the unpleasant professor who heads the department. The cause of death is asphyxia, but the body has been mutilated in various ways, including the carving of a mysterious symbol on the chest. The police assume drugs and a large sum of missing money are behind the murder. On scant evidence, they charge a friend of Harald's with the crime.

Harald's mother calls attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir and begs her to get involved in the case. Mrs. Guntlieb believes the police have arrested the wrong person. Thóra, whose messy life includes her own troubled children and an irksome ex-husband, reluctantly agrees to take the case. She needs the fee, though she's not sure how she can help. The Guntliebs send their associate, Matthew Reich, to work with Thóra. The stiff, unsmiling Matthew is friendly, wry Thóra's polar opposite. It's fun watching them chafe at working together. Eventually opposites attract and he becomes more than her straight man.

Thóra and Matthew question Harald's friends and professors; everyone has something to hide. It turns out Harald was fascinated by medieval torture and witchcraft, and into self-mutilation. The investigation takes plenty of wrong turns on the way to a particularly satisfying solution. For any crime fiction reader with a strong stomach, this is a fascinating excursion into the macabre that keeps its feet firmly planted in reality.

Dean Koontz takes the reader on a far less subtle but equally gory excursion into the supernatural with "The Darkest Evening of the Year." There are enough story lines to pack several novels, but the central one concerns Amy Redwing, a young woman whose Golden Heart foundation rescues golden retrievers; her architect boyfriend, Brian McCarthy; and a female golden retriever named Nickie whom Amy purchases from its brutal owner in the book's compelling opening scene. Brian and Amy, like Nickie, have escaped abusive relationships. Unknowingly, they now dwell at the epicenter of a brewing perfect storm of malevolent forces.

With a magician's expertise, Koontz sets his multiple story lines spinning forward, jumping from one cliffhanger to the next as he switches from Amy and Brian, to villains who aim to destroy the pair, to a little girl imprisoned by a psychotic mother and her sociopathic boyfriend. Koontz, who has written movingly about the loss of his own beloved golden retriever, Trixie, is in his element writing about these dogs, especially the beautiful and preternaturally wise Nickie. Likewise, the author has a grand time rendering a literate hired killer who adores his chosen profession and borrows aliases from the books of James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, and Franz Kafka.

Even as one groans at the overwritten landscape ("a gunmetal-blue sea . . . alchemizes the molten-gold sunshine into shiny steel scales, which churn forward like the metal treads of war machines"), at disparate characters who speak in that same authorial voice, and at the casual treatment of child abuse, this is a compulsively readable book that inexorably pulls the reader along. Koontz is a consummate pro - in the best and the worst senses.

Pyongyang, North Korea, is the setting for James Church's "Hidden Moon." In a country in which bank heists are unknown, the Gold Star Bank has been robbed. The robbers wore nylon stockings over their faces, and one of them was hit and killed by a red double-decker bus while leaving the bank. "He didn't do well against the bus," says Min, Police Inspector O's boss, musing further that this looks like a "category three" case, one that should be avoided, leaving "every stone unturned." But the robbery was witnessed by an English businessman, and foreign community leaders expect an investigation.

By the time Inspector O gets to the morgue, the robber's body has disappeared. The only evidence is the robber's bloodstained stocking. In a city bereft of commercial goods, just one person peddles stockings - a Russian traveling salesman. Further investigation takes Inspector O to the Gold Star Bank, where he meets the wasp-waisted and wily Miss Chon, to the dark, smoky Club Blue, and on into a tale that involves international intrigue.

This second Inspector O mystery from James Church, a pseudonym (according to the book jacket, the author is a "former Western intelligence officer"), is like nothing else I've read. The voice is wonderfully deadpan and sardonic. Church creates an utterly convincing, internally consistent world of the absurd where orders mean the opposite of what they say and paperwork routinely gets routed to oblivion. From the opening line - "The afternoon lay strangled in a gloom of Chinese dust" - it's clear that the reader is in the hands of an accomplished writer.

Though the ending is a bit confused, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable ride, way down a rabbit hole to an upside-down world.

Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style" and co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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