Dark knights, with and without armor
VEIL OF LIES: A Medieval Noir
By Jeri Westerson
St. Martin's Minotaur, 288 pp.,$24.95
THE FIRE KIMONO
By Laura Joh Rowland
St. Martin's Minotaur, 297 pp.,$24.95
By David Baldacci
Grand Central, 387 pp., $27.99
The dark streets of Jeri Westerson's debut novel, "Veil of Lies," are in 14th-century London. Crispin Guest is a fallen knight who wears a "shabby knee-length cotehardie" and "patched stockings." Once in service to the duke of Lancaster, he was cast out for plotting against Richard II. Without his patron, Crispin lives as a commoner and survives by hiring himself out as a detective known as Tracker. A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass and observes with detached, dry humor, Crispin sees through all manner of subterfuge and triumphs against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Nicholas Walcote, a reclusive wealthy textile merchant, hires Crispin to find out whether his young wife, the beautiful Philippa, is being unfaithful. With the help of Jack, a scrappy street urchin turned loyal servant, Crispin discovers that Philippa is indeed stepping out on her spouse. But before he can deliver the message, Crispin finds Walcote stabbed to death in his locked study.
Crispin's nemesis, Sheriff Simon Wynchecombe, a ruthless man with aspirations to high office, demands that Crispin investigate and share what he learns. Walcote's wife, the most likely suspect, turns out not to be the high-born lady that she seems. She comes to Crispin proclaiming her innocence and begs him to find a mysterious relic, a piece of cloth that may be what the killer was after. She wants it destroyed before it falls into the wrong hands. It bears the image of Christ, and no one in its presence can tell a lie.
For those readers who've had enough "Da Vinci Code" for a lifetime, don't be put off by the religious relic. This book, which has a bit of romance tucked up its raveled sleeve, is pure fun.
Laura Joh Rowland's "The Fire Kimono" is set in another feudal kingdom - 18th-century
The shogun calls on Sano to investigate when a large tree topples in the countryside, revealing a boy's skeletal remains. The shogun believes it may be his cousin Tokugawa Tadatoshi, who disappeared during the Great Long-sleeves Kimono Fire, a disaster decades earlier that killed thousands.
It soon becomes clear that Tadatoshi was hacked to death. Sano's elderly mother, who was a lady in waiting in the Tokugawa household, is implicated in the murder. If convicted, she and all of her relatives will be condemned to death.
This is an exciting and enthralling story set in a vividly rendered setting. I was captured by it from the moment a Shinto priest, buffeted by winds, his robe flapping "like a swan in mad flight," discovers those buried remains heaved from the earth.
David Baldacci's latest thrill ride, "Divine Justice," features professional assassin Oliver Stone (a.k.a. John Carr), a modern tarnished knight who wants to retire from the killing biz. But his handlers won't let him go quietly, especially not after he offed Alabama senator Roger Simpson and CIA chief Carter Gray as revenge for past acts and on orders of his own making.
On the run, Stone washes up in Divine (it's anything but), Va. The place, with its zombie-like gray coal miners, turns out to be rife with corruption, drugs, and unexplained deaths. Symbolic of the rot is the town's infamous maximum-security prison, Dead Rock, which stands directly over a collapsed mine shaft where miners were trapped and remain buried.
Abandoned mine shafts. Horrific prison. Most readers will see where this one's going.
Meanwhile, insidious spymaster Macklin Hayes sets agent John Knox on Stone's trail. Knox realizes Stone knows something that Hayes can't afford for him to reveal. Once he's captured Stone, there will be no trial, and Knox himself may be expendable.
Meanwhile, Stone's Camel Club buddies, their number reduced in previous books, regroup to try to rescue him. Meanwhile (lots of meanwhiles here) Stone is falling for the lovely widow who runs a diner in Divine and has a troubled son.
Loaded with sadistic violence and Teflon protagonists, this novel overwhelms its characters with frenzied action and multiple twisting plots. But even books like this need to establish a tad of credibility. I couldn't get past the cluelessness of the town's few innocents, who seem to have Cabot Cove syndrome. Why would people live in a place where their neighbors are dropping like flies?
Hallie Ephron is author of the forthcoming "Never Tell a Lie" (Morrow). Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.