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On Crime

A return to Oz, marred by a wicked killing

Email|Print| Text size + By Hallie Ephron
February 24, 2008

Moonlight Downs, By Adrian Hyland, Soho, 322 pp., $24
Of Blood and Sorrow , By Valerie Wilson Wesley, Ballantine, 222 pp., $25
Unknown Means, By Elizabeth Becka, Hyperion, 324 pp., $22.95

Many crime novels are best consumed at breakneck speed. Australian Adrian Hyland's debut novel, "Moonlight Downs," with its startling turns of phrase, vivid Outback setting, and rich rendering of cultural differences, is best savored slowly.

Protagonist Emily Tempest, daughter of a white miner and a Wantiya mother, is caught between worlds ("I had a foot in both camps. . . . a white woman in the black world, and a black woman in the white one"). After 12 years away, attending college and traveling the world, she returns to her "mob" in Moonlight Downs, a desolate desert community "miles from nowhere." Hoping to sort out who she is, she's reunited with a colorful cast of characters like Gladys Kneebone ("a battleship on stilts"), Cissy Whiskey ("skinny as a picket, with piercing eyes and an aureole of white hair"), and Emily's best friend from childhood, the ethereal and wise Hazel Flinders. Hazel remembers Emily as a "little bloody cyclone, with your mouth full of questions and your fists full of answers, your [hummock grass] kisses and your wild white ways." The book's small glossary is helpful to the non-Aussie trying to decode the glorious language used to tell this tale.

Soon after Emily's return, Hazel's father, the community leader, is killed and his body mutilated in a way that resembles a ritual killing. Blakie Japanangka, whom the locals call "Mamu" (the Demon), is the obvious suspect, with his history of violence and erratic behavior. Not content with this easy answer and agonizing that somehow her return triggered the murder, Emily sets out to find out what happened. She ends up on a quest to save her community and its sacred spaces.

Like Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Emily has a fresh, laugh-out-loud-funny voice, a boulder-size chip on her shoulder, and an all-consuming loyalty to friends that inspires her to acts of reckless courage. All in all, the novel is a corker, engaging from page 1 and on through to an ending that pulls out all the stops. Beneath the trappings of a genre novel, the book explores transcendent issues of identity and culture, and leaves the reader with some understanding of the horrific history that recently moved the Australian government to issue an official apology for the suffering caused by its policy of removing aboriginal children from their families.

Valerie Wilson Wesley's eighth series novel featuring private investigator Tamara Hayle, "Of Blood and Sorrow," begins with that tried and true scene - a prospective client sashays into the PI's office. The book opens: "I smelled her perfume before I saw her."

Tamara doesn't think much of the woman who calls herself Lilah Love, with her "nut brown face and a mop of fake red hair that screamed twenty-dollar hooker." Her perfume reminds Tamara of "ripe peaches left out in the sun to rot."

Tamara knows Lilah from a skirmish some years earlier in Jamaica that left a number of people dead and Tamara $30,000 richer. Now Lilah wants payback. She asks Tamara to retrieve her baby daughter; Lilah's younger sister has been taking care of the baby and now she won't give her back. Mercenary to the core, Lilah wants to give the baby to the child's father and wealthy grandfather. Tamara knows she shouldn't take the job, but as is usually the case for fictional detectives of her ilk, business has been slow and she needs the money.

This familiar setup is given some fresh twists. Tamara is a hip black private eye, trying to protect her teenage son and avoid getting stuck (again) with Mr. Wrong. She's smart-mouthed and mercurial - a flawed and thoroughly sympathetic character. The Jersey City setting feels vibrant and authentic. The bad guys aren't all bad, and the good guys aren't all good in a novel that delivers a refreshing version of what readers expect from a solid, conventional PI novel.

More in the style of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, Evelyn James is a forensic specialist with the Cleveland medical examiner's office. In Elizabeth Becka's "Unknown Means," the second series novel, Evelyn is knee deep in dead bodies with a rapist/killer targeting women philanthropists. Evelyn's job turns personal when her best friend barely survives the killer's attack. More violent deaths need to be explained when a salt mine explodes, and soon Evelyn is pulling round-the-clock shifts with no time to pay attention to her teenage daughter, and even less to nurture what seems to be a promising romance with a police detective.

All the elements of a strong novel are in place, and there are enough plot lines to fuel several books. According to the jacket copy, Becka is a veteran forensic specialist, and clearly she knows her forensics. Though I'm a "CSI" junkie, I confess that the details of lab procedure wore me down - what mesmerizes on the small screen seems a lot less accessible in paragraph after paragraph of print. A convenient lapse in police procedure (not finding a crucial link among the killer's victims) defies credibility, and the complications in Evelyn's private life seem contrived and too easily resolved. This one doesn't quite deliver on the considerable promise of the series.

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

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