On Crime

Whodunits with depth

By Hallie Ephron
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2009

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Readers who relish another opportunity to spend time with Kinsey Milhone, that tough cookie who cuts her hair with nail scissors and cleans up swell on those rare occasions when she unrolls her little black dress, will be pleased with Sue Grafton’s “U is for Undertow.’’ It’s still the early 1980s; Kinsey is still just 38 years old; and she’s still in Santa Teresa (Grafton’s hometown, Santa Barbara).

This one opens in time-honored PI fashion - a new client taps on Kinsey’s office door and in walks trouble. Kinsey eyes Michael Sutton warily, wondering “if my blue-collar roots were as obvious to him as his upper-class status was to me.’’ Sutton tells her that he’s just recognized a man he saw two decades earlier burying something in the woods. It had been Sutton’s sixth birthday, and now he realizes that was the same day that a local girl vanished. Now Sutton wonders whether he witnessed one of her killers burying her body. Kinsey reluctantly agrees to spend 24 hours investigating this case, which seems colder than ice.

Many letters ago, Grafton introduced multiple narrators and intertwining plots and subplots, and here she uses them to good advantage. A second plot takes the reader 20 years into the past. Deborah Unruh, a sedate homemaker, barely recognizes her son Greg, a Berkeley dropout who lives out of a VW van with the monstrous Shelly and her little boy. The trio have been panhandling and stealing, but Shelley is pregnant with Greg’s child, and they want to crash with the Unruhs.

The two plot lines bob and weave and eventually connect, and along the way Kinsey struggles to come to terms (at long last) with her own relationship to aunts, cousins, and especially to a grandmother who she believed abandoned her. While some chapters are written from Kinsey’s familiar, jaundiced first-person viewpoint, others are narrated in the third-person from other points of view. It was disconcerting when, late in the book, Kinsey’s first-person narrator pops up in a chapter narrated by another character.

Much more than an old-fashioned whodunit, this is a story about owning up to mistakes, and about the past’s inexorable pull on one generation to come to terms with the next.

Mark Arsenault’s second series novel, “Loot the Moon,’’ demonstrates that character-driven-thriller isn’t an oxymoron. His protagonists are journalist Billy Povich and hardworking defense attorney Martin Smothers. To his colleagues, Smothers is known as Patron Lawyer of Hopeless Causes. Billy, once a star journalist with a fatal weakness for gambling, is a lost cause himself. He’s been demoted to obit writing and works into the wee hours waiting for death notices to waft in on the fax machine. In his obits, “everyone is a hero,’’ and he digs to discover “what set regular folk apart.’’ After work, Billy has his hands full with needy relatives - his cheeky 6-year-old son, who is never without his Einstein doll and who parrots, at the top of his lungs, every curse he hears, and his father, a crusty old codger whose body is telling him to give up when Billy desperately needs him to keep on fighting.

Smothers inveigles Billy into investigating the death of his former mentor, legendary judge Gilbert Harmony. Smothers believes the judge was shot by a hit man who then carjacked Harmony’s son and was killed when the car went out of control. He wants whoever hired the killer brought to justice.

Arsenault’s writing is in the same league with authors like John Hart and William Kent Krueger. The action scenes, like the opening carjacking, leave the reader breathless. The three-generation relationship among Billy, his son, and his father gives the novel heart and soul.

Take a tour of Boston neighborhoods at their dark and murky best in “Boston Noir,’’ 11 short stories edited by Dennis Lehane. Start in the financial district with Lynne Heitman’s “Exit Interview.’’ A woman mutual fund manager in a bloodstained Tahari suit is on her Bluetooth with a Boston Police hostage negotiator. It’s five hours into a siege she set in motion when she shot her boss after the promotion she feels she more than earned was once again given to a far less accomplished man whom she’s now got tied to a chair. If you never thought of Boston’s Financial District as a dark place, read this.

Dana Cameron’s “Femme Sole’’ turns the clock back to turn-of-the-century Dock Square. There, another enterprising businesswoman (“a pretty young lass with no family and a thriving business on the waterfront’’) has married a man to insulate herself from predators, only to find she’s let the predator into her bed.

Also of note, John Dufresne’s broody “The Cross-Eyed Bear’’ takes a new slant on an aging Catholic priest’s darker impulses. Russ Aborn’s “Turn Speed’’ tells a high-paced, twisty tale of North Quincy robbers who cross the mob. And Lehane’s own contribution, the low-key, ironic “Animal Rescue,’’ is set in motion when a Dorchester bartender rescues a pit bull puppy from a garbage can.

Not the tourist’s Boston, the anthology delivers varied views of the area’s dark underbelly.

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

By Sue Grafton
Putnam, 416 pp, $27.95

By Mark Arsenault
Minotaur, 288 pp, $24.99

Edited by Dennis Lehane
Akashic, 270 pp, $15.95

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