Dead and gone - sort of
BONE BY BONE
By Carol OConnell
Putnam, 340 pp., $24.95
ECHOES FROM THE DEAD
By Johan Theorin
Translated, from the Swedish, by Marlaine Delargy
Dell, 400 pp., paperback, $12
By Maggie Barbieri
St. Martins Minotaur, 324 pp., $24.95
A man's need to unravel his brother's disappearance fuels Carol O'Connell's new stand-alone, "Bone by Bone." Oren Hobbs and his brother, Josh, quarreled just before Josh disappeared into the woods in Coventry, Calif. Oren was sent into exile. Decades later, Oren has been mysteriously called back. The book opens with him waking up in his father's house on an old horsehair sofa. A dog barks and there's a thud outside on the porch. Hannah, Oren's father's longtime housekeeper, appears. She begs Oren not to open the door, but Oren, now a retired Army CID agent, can't do otherwise. On the porch he finds a human jawbone. A few pages later, Hannah explains that it's not the first time this has happened: "Your brother's been coming home - bone by bone."
As Oren investigates, secrets within secrets are revealed like Russian dolls nested inside one another. The women from Oren's past - a fiery redhead who holds a serious grudge and an older woman who once sought refuge with him from an abusive spouse - must be reckoned with as well.
Like O'Connell's Kathy Mallory series, this novel pulses with a gothic noir. Every character is a one-off, from the tiny but formidable Hannah with her quasi-magical powers, to Oren's sleepwalking father, who has set each returning bone in a coffin on Josh's bed, to an obese librarian who smells so dreadful that Coventry's citizenry never set foot in the library. Each eccentricity is fundamental to the story. Despite an overwrought ending, this is one of those books you can't put down.
Another boy goes missing in Swedish author Johan Theorin's "Echoes From the Dead." The townspeople of ??land, a remote Baltic island, remember the foggy summer day in 1972 when 6-year-old Jens Davidsson wandered off. No trace of him has ever been found until decades later when his grandfather Gerlof receives a mysterious package containing a sandal. Gerlof summons Jens's mother, Julia, a nurse who has never recovered from losing her son. At last, with this single bit of evidence, Gerlof is determined to prove that Jens was murdered by ??land's bogeyman, Nils Kant.
Kant is a sociopathic killer who vanished from the island decades before Jens disappeared. He is responsible for his own young brother's drowning death and for murdering a pair of German soldiers and a police officer before he escaped by ship for South America. Years later, a coffin supposedly containing Kant's remains was returned to the island and buried in the churchyard. But Gerlof is one of many who believe that the coffin is filled with stones and that Kant is still living among them, wreaking more havoc. The novel's opening flashback to the day Jens disappeared suggests that Gerlof may be right.
The narrative continues in the present. Energized by the possibility of finding out what happened to her son, Julia slowly climbs out of her fugue state. A local police officer whose father was one of Kant's victims helps her along. Flashbacks told from Kant's viewpoint reveal his trail of destruction.
Though rich in characterization, this is a dense read. The ending packs a stunning surprise, but one that left me scratching my head as I tried to fit the puzzle pieces together.
After dark novels about missing youngsters, Maggie Barbieri's lighter-than-air "Quick Study" seemed just the ticket. This third series novel features Alison Bergeron, a college English professor. Alison is also a world-class New York Rangers hockey fan, and the book opens on her birthday with her and her best friend, Max, watching a game from nose-bleed seats. Alison is wearing an oversize Mark Messier jersey, a gift from her police-officer boyfriend, the hunky, straight-shooting Bobby Crawford. Max has on a "size-two black cocktail dress."
Alex's ex, Jack McManus, who is also the Rangers' marketing director, shows up and offers to move them to better seats. Soon Alison finds herself and Jack on the Jumbotron with all of Madison Square Garden singing "Happy birthday to you" and all of the world watching. She wonders how she's going to explain this to Crawford.
Finally, this chick-lit mystery hatches a murder. The victim is a young Latino whose family Alison meets at a soup kitchen where she's doing community service, penance for mouthing off at a police officer. He'd been working on a construction crew for a condo project rumored to be using shoddy construction practices and illegal workers. Though Crawford begs her not to, Alison is determined to investigate. She persists, nearly getting herself killed several times over.
Alison can be laugh-out-loud funny, as when she describes an elegant woman at a cocktail party as "wearing what appeared to be a Kleenex and high heels." But one-liners, slapstick, and an utterly charming dog can't sustain this novel, which never makes the reader care whodunit.
Hallie Ephron is author of the forthcoming "Never Tell a Lie." Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.