To read "The Magic Circle" (Ballantine Books), Katherine Neville's hypnotically dense and intelligent thriller, is to wallow in an extraordinary concoction of mythology, history, suspense and little-known legends of the new millennium. I've read nothing like it since the author's previous bestseller, "The Eight."
The new novel begins in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus' life, though most of the action is set in 1989, the year of the crushing of rebellion in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Heroine Ariel Behn, an Idaho-based nuclear security expert, is stunned when her much-loved cousin Sam is killed while performing a covert government service. Sam has made Ariel the heir to a mysterious collection of ancient manuscripts that have belonged to the spectacularly dysfunctional and eccentric Behn clan for generations. The legacy catapults Ariel to the center of an international intrigue and forces her to come to grips with more dark family secrets than the average therapist sees in a lifetime.
And in addition to Ariel's bizarre relatives, the characters include Adolf Hitler, Genghis Kahn, Caligula and the Apostles.
Like a master juggler, Neville keeps all these improbable plates spinning in the air for almost 500 pages, though in the end, she gets tripped up by reality. The tale she has spun is so fantastic that it's almost impossible to end on a satisfying note. Nonetheless, "The Magic Circle" is not to be missed.
If I were teaching a course on how to write a mystery, I would make Carolyn Hart's "Death in Paradise" (Avon Books) required reading. The fourth entry in the author's Henrie O series, starring sleuth Henrietta Dwyer Collins, an aging journalist-turned-college-teacher, is passionate, lyrical and compelling. It takes off like an Olympic sprinter out of the blocks, when Henrie O receives a malevolent poster in the mail that suggests her beloved late husband, Richard, did not accidentally fall off a cliff on Kauai, as Henrie O has believed for the last six years, but instead was pushed. At the time of his death, Richard was staying at Ahiahi, the remote island home of his beautiful and flamboyant friend, Belle Ericcson, a fellow foreign correspondent. The poison poster intimates that Richard's murder was linked to the long unsolved kidnapping and murder of Belle's daughter, CeeCee.
Though Henrie O had always resented Belle, she flies to her home on Kauai to seek out vengeance, understanding and release. Belle is hosting a family party to commemorate CeeCee's death, and the cast of guests (or as Henrie O sees them, suspects) would do Agatha Christie proud. The denouement is surprising, but utterly logical, and the author's descriptionof a pond with the flickering brightness of fish colored more imaginatively than a tropical Gaugin made me want to call my travel agent. Superb.
The prolific Anne Perry's sleuths Thomas Pitt and his well-born wife, Charlotte, are back on the job in "Brunswick Gardens" (Fawcett Columbine). Set a hundred years ago, around the time Darwin's theory of evolution outraged the Anglican church, the plot revolves around the death of Unity Bellwood, a freethinking, pro-Darwin feminist. Three months' pregnant, the unmarried Unity tumbles down the stairs at the Rev. Ramsay Parmenter's home, and Commander Pitt is convinced that she was pushed by one of the three religious men in the house.
Was it the deeply conservative Parmenter? His Catholic son? Or sexy curate Dominic Corde? Perry not only transports the reader back to an age when headaches were treated with a little feverfew and oil of lavender, she sheds light on the moral issues that defined the Victorian sensibility.
If you have somehow managed to miss the 17 other Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries, the complex and mesmerizing "Brunswick Gardens" is a great place to begin.
Next Week: Dick Lochte on mysteries.