Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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By Deborah McKinlay
Soho, 272 pp., $24

“I was a blonde eating an avocado, in a country where avocados were plentiful and blondes were rare.” So begins this sleek melodrama, the writer’s fiction debut. The narrator, a middle-aged British woman named Frances, has just made two shattering discoveries. One is that she is mortally ill. The other is that her husband is in love with another woman.

For reasons that turn out to be more complicated than we suppose, her thoughts return to that long-ago summer when she was an unencumbered young thing living on a shoestring in Mexico. As past becomes present, Sally and Mason Severance, a rancidly sophisticated couple vacationing with friends and assorted children in a beachside villa, take a manipulative fancy to the girl and invite her to move in.

Like Nick Carraway, Frances at 22 is irresistibly drawn to the languid glamour of the Severances and their set even after the odor of rot has become overpowering. The novel is not otherwise “Gatsby”-esque. Though the Severances and company are supposedly American, the British author has little grasp of the idiom and insufficient means for distinguishing one cast member from another. Only Frances makes any claim on our sympathy, and in a massive concluding gamble, the novel whisks even that away from us.

By Liza Wieland
Southern Methodist University, 256 pp., $23.95

Elegant and introspective, these stories by Liza Wieland command a range of situations and a variety of largely female protagonists.

The title fiction finds inspiration and a kind of grace in the infamous high school “pregnancy pact” in Gloucester a few years ago. A harrowing story called “Vision” drinks deeply of the southern Gothic tradition of sadistic violence and family melodrama. At another extreme of sensibility, in “First, Marriage” a scholarly woman recalls her graduate student years and her brief, doomed marriage to a grief-stricken artist; the subway trains that rattled their little New York apartment seem now an unheeded harbinger of what lay ahead for them. Yet another story culminates at a war crimes trial in France, as the pathetically few survivors of a shattered town confront one another along with their Nazi tormenters.

Although a number of stories invoke weighty historical figures and events, the author never seems to be borrowing significance. She is drawn to them by their potential for illuminating inner life. One is struck, too, by her gift for the artful gesture. “But then, what next?” begins one fiction, knocking us off balance as it pulls us across the threshold.

By P.G. Sturges
Scribner, 224 pp., $24

Having trouble with a contractor who disappeared as soon as the check was cashed, or with a deadbeat tenant who has overstayed his welcome? What you need, friend, is a shortcut man, a muscle specialist who doesn’t mind breaking the law along with a few noses in order to set the natural balance aright. And if the aggrieved party lives in LA, the shortcut man to call is Dick Henry, who came by his faith in the application of force courtesy of the US Navy.

Working alongside his cheerful but no less lethal Latino sidekick, Henry seems happy enough to play bully on behalf of little old ladies with shoddily plastered ceilings and landlords who need to kick out a freeloader but are too pacifistic to do it themselves. But when a producer of X-rated movies hires Henry to spy on his wandering wife, the gig hits shockingly close to home and sends the private eye’s gamy private life into a tailspin.

Confidently billing itself as a “crime series debut,” “Shortcut Man” joins the wisecracking, bone-breaking tradition of California noir stretching from Chandler and Hammett to Robert Crais’s latest Elvis Cole novel. Refined it’s not, but this debut novel by P.G. Sturges, son of writer-director Preston Sturges, makes for a gripping read.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at ahellerst@