On Crime

Tales of suspense, unfolded slowly

By Hallie Ephron
October 25, 2009

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Not every good crime novel is supercharged. Emily Arsenault’s debut book, “The Broken Teaglass,’’ takes its own good time. The unlikely heroes are a pair of young lexicographers. Self-proclaimed “clod’’ Billy Webb and his work mate, the diminutive Mona Minot, live in Claxton, a fictional Massachusetts town, headquarters of the Daniel Samuelson dictionary company. There a staff of eccentrics works diligently to keep the tome up to date and answer bizarre customer questions. Billy’s mentor, Dan Wood, illustrates the kind of always polite response to give to the typically inappropriate query: “I’m afraid I can’t tell you which spelling, Judgment Day or Judgement Day, is more appropriate for the tattoo you plan to receive.’’

To keep up with changing word usage, staffers jot examples from literature on cards. These citations are stored in wooden file drawers and go back hundreds of years. Among them, Mona and Billy discover a “cit’’ from a book titled “The Broken Teaglass’’ by Dolores Beekmim published in 1985. The work seems to refer to a crime set, improbably, right there at Samuelson Co.

Intrigued, Mona and Billy find more cits, each one containing another paragraph of the story. When the whole is assembled, answers to a long-unsolved crime are revealed, and our two heroes find themselves and each other.

There is “a certain elegance,’’ to quote one of the characters in this winningly unique novel, “to a story that’s meant to be revealed slowly, in fragments, to give its readers little pause, a little . . . caution.’’ This is one for readers who revel in words.

Another leisurely told tale is Ruth Rendell’s 22d Chief Inspector Wexford novel, “The Monster in the Box.’’ Years ago, Wexford became convinced that a cocky, barrel-chested local named Targo was responsible for a series of murders. Brazen in his belief that he couldn’t be caught, Targo had stared at Wexford, stalked him, given him conspiratorial smiles. But Wexford had been unable to find any motive or evidence connecting Targo with the victims. When Targo moved away, Wexford reluctantly followed his daughter’s sage advice: Visualize a box and close the monster inside it.

But this monster won’t stay boxed. Wexford spots Targo again, walking a dog in his neighborhood, and soon there’s another strangled victim. In his gut, Wexford knows Targo is responsible. This time, he vows, “Whatever it takes, I will get him.’’

Meanwhile, Wexford’s partner’s wife, teacher Jenny Burden, has become equally obsessed with one of her students. She’s convinced that Tamina Rahman is about to be railroaded into an arranged marriage. Wexford’s colleague, Hannah Goldsmith, a detective who prides herself on bending over backward not to be racist, questions Tamina’s wealthy Pakistani family. She, too, becomes convinced that the 16-year-old is about to be forcibly married off. Hannah’s good intentions lead her to push the boundaries of legitimate police inquiry.

Irrational obsession is the real culprit here, and fans will enjoy Wexford’s long look back at his early obsession with the woman who looked like his perfect mate, with hilariously disastrous results. Burden wonders whether Wexford’s obsession with Targo is clouding his judgment, but from page one the reader knows that this time, his intuition is spot on.

Keith Raffel’s “Smasher,’’ the second novel in his series featuring Ian Michaels, CEO and founder of Accelenet, a Silicon Valley start-up desperately in need of an infusion of cash. Michaels is loathe to make a bargain with the devil, aka Ricky Frankson, a billionaire who has vowed to crush what he calls Michaels’ “piss-ant little company.’’ Frankson mounts a hostile takeover.

Meanwhile, Michaels’ wife, D.A. Rowena Goldberg, is trying her first murder case. As Michaels watches from the courtroom doorway, the defendant threatens to kill Rowena. Like the loose canon that he is, Michaels erupts in her defense.

Meanwhile, Michaels’ mother begs him to “do justice’’ for his great-aunt Isobel, a physicist who never got the credit she deserved for her role in the discovery of quarks. Isobel was hit by a car crossing the street in Geneva shortly before members of the team she was working with were awarded the Nobel Prize. Dead people can’t win the Nobel Prize. As if that weren’t enough, her colleague, Dr. William Z. Tompkins, has written an account dismissing “Izzy’’ as a moody assistant. Her notebooks, which Michaels’ mother gives him, tell another story entirely.

In the background and missing in action is Michaels’ best friend and the company’s cofounder Paul Berk, who disappeared in the wake of the murder of Rowena’s sister.

Yes, there’s material here for several novels. We follow the narrator as he caroms among the story lines. Through frenzied negotiations, courtroom drama, a car accident, and an explosion, Michaels feels he is a Teflon hero. Just days after breaking a leg, he walks, runs, and tackles his enemy and then kicks down a door. One minute he’s a bull in a china shop; the next an impervious super negotiator. Too bad, because with so much going on, this novel desperately needs a main character with an emotional core that can hold it all together.

Hallie Ephron is author of “The Bibliophile’s Devotional’’ and “Never Tell a Lie.’’

By Emily Arsenault
Delacorte, 384 pp., $25

By Ruth Rendell
Scribner, 304 pp., $26

By Keith Raffel
Midnight Ink, 312 pp., $14.95

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