By Barbara Pope
Pegasus, 352 pp., $25
Eight in the Box
By Raffi Yessayan
Ballantine, 274 pp., $25
The Foreigner By Francie Lin
Picador, 320 pp., paperback, $14
Barbara Pope takes a whiff of historical evidence that artist Paul Cézanne had a love affair with a mysterious woman when he was painting the mountains and quarries of Aix-en-Provence, France, in 1885 and spins it into an elegant murder mystery. "Cézanne's Quarry" opens with the murder of Solange Vernet, the woman with whom Pope imagines Cézanne became besotted. With experienced judges away on summer holiday, the investigation falls in the lap of Bernard Martin ("a judge with little experience and no family or connections in the South of France"). Naïve and lacking in self-confidence, Martin is at the mercy of the gruff, ruthless Inspector Albert Franc, who wants to dispose of the case as quickly as possible.
Pope graphically depicts the hot journey by wagon to the quarry where Vernet is found dead. The reader can almost smell the rotting flesh and hear the flies as Martin examines the quickly decomposing body. Martin had once crossed paths with this beautiful, independent woman when they both sought a copy of Darwin's "The Origin of Species." Martin is outraged but not surprised at Inspector Franc's contempt for the victim, and later notes to himself that "the abuse of young women was by far the most commonly committed and least prosecuted crime in all of France." Flourishes like this remind the reader that the author is both a historian and a feminist scholar.
Inspector Franc zealously pursues the investigation, eager to pin the murder on Vernet's longtime lover, self-taught geologist Charles Westerbury. Failing that, he builds a case against Cézanne. Westerbury and Cézanne are a study in contrasts - one a scientist who studies the mountains, the other an artist who paints them. Martin, growing into his role as investigator, becomes convinced that neither man is responsible. The ending delivers a satisfying twist.
"Cézanne's Quarry" is a highly accomplished, compelling novel. Beneath an exquisite veneer of historical detail lurks a thoughtful exploration of science and religion, of old values and new, and of a woman's place in the world.
Attorneys, police investigators, and the justice system itself are the subjects of Raffi Yessayan's debut novel, "Eight in the Box." The story is set in and around the Boston District Court, where juries of eight deliberate to reach verdicts. The novel opens with the murder of a young single mother, Susan McCarthy, as seen through the eyes of a particularly cold-blooded killer.
Among the first at the crime scene is assistant district attorney Conrad Darget. This is a guy who loves his job ("Driving to a murder scene made Connie feel alive, like a kid sledding down the Blue Hills, not knowing if he'd be able to stop before shooting out onto the highway below"). Instead of a corpse, he finds a bathtub filled with blood. A similar recent crime convinces investigators that a serial killer is at work.
The author was an assistant district attorney in Boston for more than a decade, and the complicated, gritty world he creates rings with authenticity. Local readers will recognize many of the places, like Doyle's in Jamaica Plain, where police officers and Connie and his fellow attorneys hang out.
The novel bogs down as it dramatizes a string of low-profile district court cases - petty drug dealing and marijuana possession, for instance - that seem unrelated to the murders. Rapid intercutting of scenes and a multitude of point-of-view characters are reminiscent of Joseph Wambaugh. But here, the wide focus diffuses the reader's attention, and characters blur. The one riveting character who jumps off the page is the killer, who hides behind the sobriquet Richter - a German term for judge - and who gradually reveals himself.
In Francie Lin's intriguing debut thriller, "The Foreigner," Emerson Chang's bland existence takes a radical turn on his 40th birthday, when his overbearing mother falls ill and dies soon after. She leaves him a small piece of property in Taiwan and responsibility for disposing of her ashes. In what he takes as a final slap in the face for all his self-sacrifice on her behalf, she leaves the family homestead - a run-down motel called the Remada Inn - to his ne'er-do-well brother, who went to Taiwan and disappeared years earlier.
Emerson, a 40-year-old virgin living in San Francisco with no friends and a mind-numbing job in corporate finance, has nothing to keep him in the United States. He packs a suitcase and, burdened with his mother's ashes, sets out to find his elusive brother. The journey takes him deep into Taipei's squalid criminal underworld.
The opening chapters read like a literary novel, and Lin brings sad-sack Emerson, his imperious mother, and their toxic relationship vividly to the page. In Taipei, the story grows dark and increasingly violent. Despite being dazzled by the lustrous writing, I found myself increasingly annoyed with Emerson's obtuse naivete and refusal to act until it's nearly too late. The protracted chase ending, de rigueur in today's thrillers, seems tacked on and artificial, creating a disconnect between the reader and the excitement that the end should deliver.
Hallie Ephron is author of "1001 Books for Every Mood." Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.