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CRIMINAL PURSUITS

What better thought for dark December than a couple of gift suggestions for inveterate crime consumers?

The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig (Oxford: $19.95; 554 pp.) is a splendid resource, handsomely formatted, crisply annotated, well-chosen and, not least, modestly priced. There are 33 stories, from the unheard-of Clarence Rook (?-1915) to the very current Simon Brett (1945- ). All the greats are represented: Doyle, Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Sayers. The present generation includes Ruth Rendell and P. D. James as well as H. R. F. Keating, Robert Barnard and others.

The short form demands, and in these selections receives, high dosages of wit and irony as well as surprise. The conjoined spirits of O. Henry and Alfred Hitchcock, so to speak, watch over much of the work, which is to be taken in small doses. One at bedtime, say.

The principal link to crime as such in another anthology is that its co-editor was Dick Francis. He and John Welcome have chosen and introduced The Dick Francis Treasury of Great Horseracing Stories (Norton: $19.95; 213 pp.). The authorships range from Conan Doyle (his “Silver Blaze,” historic if only because it was therein that the dog, curiously, did not bark in the night) to Sherwood Anderson (“I’m a Fool”), John Galsworthy (“Had a Horse”) and John P. Marquand, whose “What’s It Get You?” is a lovely sardonic tale about a caper involving a disguised horse.

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Yet another entry in the lengthening list of women writing about women sleuths is Linda Barnes, a Bostonian who chronicles Carlotta Carlyle, a six-foot ex-cop who drives a cab to supplement her thin income as a private eye. She is half-Irish, half-Jewish, tough and compassionate equally.

In her third outing, Coyote (Delacorte: $17.95; 273 pp.), Carlyle confronts an illegal-alien scam that suggests the Southwest has no monopoly on the exploitation of the migrating poor. A Latina retains Carlyle to investigate an irregularity involving her green card. The woman disappears, then is found murdered, hands severed to prevent identification. More deaths appear the work of a serial killer but are more cover-ups for a scheme that involves importing illegals and then blackmailing the employers who use them.

The book is notable for its relentless action, a very suspenseful ending in a subway station, a surprising culprit close at hand and, above all, the humanity of the protagonist, another recruit in a lively sisterhood.

An unusually intricate and well-detailed international thriller, The Perpignon Exchange by Warren Kiefer (Donald I. Fine: $19.95; 301 pp.) has a protagonist who is part-Palestinian (his mother), part-French (his father). In the Middle East he is Dahoud el Beida; in Vienna, which he likes to think of as home, he is David Perpignon, a name his father misread from a Champagne label. In any locale, Dahoud/Perpignon is a con man and a self-taught computer whiz.

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On a flight out of Athens, his plane is hijacked by the PLO and Perpignon (as Dahoud, of course) is inadvertently identified as the leader of the hijackers. Hostages are taken but Perpignon finds himself a hero in Libya with a cushy bank job ripe with embezzlement possibilities. He also finds himself caught between identities and powers, answering both to the terrorists and to (generally unpleasant) U.S. operatives coercing him into finding and freeing the hostages.

Kiefer, said to be a former pilot and television producer now living in Buenos Aires, previously wrote a well-received Western called “Outlaw.” He seems to know his Middle East well or to have researched it thoroughly. Kaddafi himself is a character, and the line between reality and invention is all but invisible.

The narrative is first-person so it is clear one of the identities survives. Possibly. Kiefer makes a bizarrely intricate plot work and spins a very fine yarn: sophisticated, swift, colorful, unpredictable.

The Potter’s Field (Mysterious Press: $16.95; 230 pp.) is the 17th novel by an indefatigable Englishwoman, Ellis Peters, about Brother Cadfael and the 12th-Century Benedictine abbey at Shrewsbury (a real enough institution, founded in 1083) where Cadfael is the resident herbalist.

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This time the abbey is given a new plot of farmland, and the first plowing unearths the corpse of a black-haired woman. She may be the ex-wife of a local man, now become a novice at the abbey to manage his grief after the woman was said to have taken off with a new lover.

But had she? And if not, who interred her and under what circumstances? The tale advances at the leisurely pace of 12th-Century life. Peters, wisely, makes no attempt to create period speech (this is two centuries before Chaucer, and we know what a lousy speller he was). She uses a timeless, uncolloquial English which serves well, and you have the feeling that the detailing of abbey life and ritual is entirely accurate. But Peters’ characters are attractive and the book is as restful as a visit to a country church on a summer afternoon.

Robert Campbell lives in Carmel but writes mostly about Chicago and a politically ambitious sewer inspector named Jimmy Flannery. This time, in The Gift Horse’s Mouth (Pocket Books: $17.95; 198 pp.), a politically potent lady named Goldie has been offed in a swamp, and Boss Carrigan wants to find out if it really was death by misadventure, as the coroner said.

The answer lies in Goldie’s past, which was more interesting than all but a couple of her pals knew. The style--first-person, slangy, ungrammatical--has the smell of the lamp about it, or perhaps now it’s the pale glow of the computer screen. Campbell (“Alice in La-La Land”) has done stronger stuff.

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“Best” lists are always a dubious enterprise. Yet browsing through a year’s worth of titles, I find there are “keepers,” mysteries I will want to read again when I can. This year the keepers (in no order of preference) would include John Westermann’s “Exit Wounds,” Sara Paretsky’s “Burn Marks,” Tony Gibbs’ “Running Fix,” Sue Grafton’s “G Is for Gumshoe,” David Martin’s “Lie to Me,” Marcel Montecino’s “Big Time,” Loren D. Estleman’s “Whiskey River,” Paul Levine’s “Speak for the Dead,” Lawrence Block’s “A Ticket to the Boneyard,” Dick Francis’ “Boneyard,” James Lee Burke’s “A Morning for Flamingos,” Ruth Rendell’s “Going Wrong” and P. D. James’ “Devices and Desires.” A butcher’s dozen.


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