On Mysteries

Complex plots, vivid characters, and charm

By Hallie Ephron
Globe Correspondent / March 28, 2010

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In “Known to Evil,” the second novel in a new series, Walter Mosley gives us a New York City as vivid as Easy Rawlins’s Watts. His new anti-hero, Leonid McGill, hangs out at Gordo’s Boxing Gym and runs his PI practice out of a cavernous office in the opulent Tesla building. He finagled the space as payback for favors rendered to the building’s former owner. The new owner is trying to get him thrown out.

A former boxer, McGill describes himself as “a bald, black-headed, fat grub that spent the afternoon drying in the sun.” Once he made his living doing “favors” for the mob; now he’s trying not only to go straight, but also to right a few of his more egregious wrongs.

McGill is thrilled when Alphonse Rinaldo, “one of the secret pillars of New York’s political and economic systems,” begs a small favor. He wants him to engineer a casual encounter with a young woman, Tara Lear, and make sure she’s “all right.” Veteran mystery readers won’t be surprised that when Leonid finally finds the woman’s apartment, it’s surrounded by crime tape and police cars. But from then on, very little about this novel is predictable.

McGill’s back story is every bit as compelling as the search for Tara Lear. In a loveless marriage to the beautiful Scandinavian Katrina, he knows that two of his three children were fathered by his wife’s lover. Still trying to repair the collateral damage of his “iniquitous past,” he’s haunted by memories of a father who died when he was just a boy: “I felt about my father the way a spider feels about the dark corner where she is drawn to build her web: he was fundamental and gave me no choice.”

Complex plotting never loses the reader as multiple stories intertwine, heaping woe upon woe and ratcheting the stakes for a man who has learned to hold life at arm’s length. The writing is minimalist prose with poetry mixed in, making the pages pure pleasure to turn.

New York itself is as much a character as Linda Fairstein’s fictional doppelganger Alexandra Cooper, chief of the Manhattan DA office’s sex crimes unit, in the 12th series novel, “Hell Gate.” The story opens on a beach in Queens with a rusted freighter, ironically named “Golden Voyage,” run aground on a sandbar. Its cargo: human beings.

Many of the Ukrainians on board panicked at the sight of a police boat chugging toward them and jumped into the frigid water. Among the recovered bodies is a woman bearing a distinctive tattoo of a sex slave. But unlike the other victims, she was killed before she hit the water. Establishing her identity and bringing her killer to justice falls to Alex and to Manhattan North homicide detective Mike Chapman.

Meanwhile, scandal has erupted around Manhattan Congressman Ethan Leighton. Driving drunk, he wrecked his car and left the scene. Turns out he’s also hiding a girlfriend and baby whom he’s set up in a posh apartment. Higher-ups enlist Alex’s help to keep a lid on scandal that threatens to engulf Leighton’s powerful buddies, and Gracie Mansion itself becomes headquarters for a murder investigation. Its lawn offers a perfect view of the eponymous narrow churning strait.

The political intrigue feels oh-so-timely. A rich cast of characters and intertwined bureaucracies may overwhelm new readers, but Fairstein keeps her story barreling forward and pulls together the threads. There may be too much historic trivia for some, but readers are guaranteed to walk away with a new appreciation for Gracie Mansion and for the churning waters of Hell Gate just off shore.

Cara Black’s “Murder in the Palais Royal” is the 10th series novel featuring Aimée Leduc, a private investigator with a taste for high fashion and bad boys. About to leave for New York to meet the brother she previously never knew she had, a brother who may take her a step closer to finding out what happened to her mysterious mother, Aimée finds her plans abruptly derailed when a woman wearing a raincoat and biker helmet just like hers shoots her business partner and best friend, René Friant. Aimée becomes the prime suspect.

Though she’s well connected, she can’t prove she’s been framed. One by one, her lifelines vanish. The man she was with when René was shot denies being with her. Mysterious wire transfers convince government watchdogs that she’s laundering money and her business grinds to a halt. Over and over she is brought in for questioning. Resuming her investigation, she meets dead end after dead end as bodies pile up.

The charm of this series comes from the character and a vividly rendered setting. Aimée rides her pink scooter through the streets of Paris, roller skates through the Louvre after closing time, and tears through dark tunnels under the Palais Royal wearing peep-toe shoes or vintage Valentino boots, her eyes ringed with kohl, trying to figure out who is out to get her.

Zut alors! It’s quite a ride.

Hallie Ephron is the author of “Never Tell a Lie,’’ a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

KNOWN TO EVIL By Walter Mosley

Riverhead, 336 pp., $25.95

HELL GATE By Linda Fairstein

Dutton, 400 pp., $26.95


Soho Crime, 304 pp., 24