Skulduggery and whodunits

Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Yes, Robert B. Parker is back, and with him, Boston private eye Spenser; his ladylove, Susan Silverman; Pearl, the wonder dog revivified; and, in due course, his sidekick Hawk, although a bit subdued. With the gang all here, Parker hits the top of his form -- not that there’s much time to notice while choking back giggles and guffaws. So in “Bad Business” nothing much is new except that Spenser has developed a taste for Volvic water and learned to talk about mark-to-mark accounting, accrual accounts, special-purpose entities and other pretty fancies appropriate to the bookkeeping frauds of creative business executives.

Fraudulent or not, though, Parker’s hominids sound and behave much like everyday Janes and Joes, except of course for the dauntingly literate Spenser, who banters, teases, sparkles, mocks and makes merry like no hominid in the street. While Spenser turns verbal cartwheels, the supporting cast sounds a bit muffled, which doesn’t diminish the zest of a plot that begins with not one sleuth, but three trailing allegedly two-timing corporate gents and their wives before allegations of adultery morph into the corporate skulduggery we’ve learned to take for granted and that Spenser will sagaciously uncover. There’s lots of money involved, lots of sex, trickery and peculation, a number of squirrels and a great deal of fun. There’s also a radio talk show guru and corporate pimp who is as joyous as a deviated septum, who riffs about courtly love and who may not be all he seems. Which is OK, because Spenser’s plenitude and Parker’s artfulness get the best of him.

Christopher Fowler’s “Full Dark House” is a madcap mystery that’s completely crazy and great fun for it. A strange murder, then a string of more strange murders, occurs at the Palace Theatre in wartime London, just when Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” is about to open. It’s November 1940, much of Europe is held by Hitler’s hordes and the blitz is moving into high gear; a cheerful romp is just what the beleaguered city needs to raise morale. But the cast of the frolicsome operetta is being decimated. The Peculiar Crimes Unit of the London police dispatches two lead detectives to cope with the case. Arthur Bryant and John May are young and eager, but they and their small team are lost in the murky shadows of the labyrinthine playhouse, stymied by scarce suspects and undetectable motives. A delusive stage within the larger stage of London under fire, dark when not illuminated by explosions and flames, the Palace apparently shelters a malevolent ghostly presence, a resident phantom who strikes, then vanishes, no one knows how or where. Invulnerable, genial and crafty, Bryant and May wend their perky way through hazards, pitfalls and false trails and finally run the culpables to ground. All this is in counterpoint to an undersong: a concomitant mystery set in our own day and featuring the same leading actors.


If this sounds a bit confusing, it is. But it is also witty, frisky and enhanced by Keystone-Kop-like scenes staged in perilous settings. The only flaws of the book will be apparent to those who remember the blitz as I do. Some of Fowler’s howlers are whoppers, such as assuming that the besieged British of late 1940 could normally communicate with German-occupied Europe. But few codgers are left to cavil. Those who enjoy this intermittently hilarious charade should be many.

Ian Smith’s inventive “The Blackbird Papers” makes an engrossing read. Professor William Bledsoe, Nobel Prize winner and Dartmouth’s most renowned scientist, has just been feted for winning another prestigious, lucrative award. As he drives home to dinner on a dark, rain-soaked Vermont road, he is waylaid and battered to death. His FBI agent brother, Sterling Bledsoe, flies in to lead the investigation into a murder that makes no sense. William was loved by neighbors, students, colleagues and co-workers. Who would want him dead? And who in those peaceful backwoods would follow his killing with two more slayings as inexplicable as the first?

Local police, puzzled at the outset, zero in on a bunch of loutish white supremacists (the Bledsoes are black); but Sterling is unconvinced. His importunate persistence turns him into an outlaw when he is framed for his brother’s murder. But friends and associates stick by Sterling and allow him to uncover a murky, deep-laid plot connected with the blackbirds that were the subject of William’s research project, which threatened the deep pockets of biotech investors and government agencies. Just follow the drugs of ornithological mass destruction.

For connoisseurs of gambling mysteries, James Swain is the author of choice. And those who fancy details about risk addiction couldn’t do better than listen to Tony Valentine, ex-cop turned gaming consultant and nemesis of grifters. Valentine specializes not only in exposing every scam used by cheaters, but also in explaining the detail of their chisels. Impromptu seminars break out on every page, explaining double-posting, shorting on payoffs, playing early anchor, setups, rigged games, takeoff agents, card counting, cold decks false-shuffled, basic strategy cards for blackjack, rat-holing, creep files, pigeons, sorts, blind time, loaded dice, tops (loaded dice with only three numbers on each die) and more. All are fascinating, but no more so than the casinos bristling with batteries of surveillance cameras, swarming with suckers, strippers, showoffs and security stiffs.

Valentine’s antecedent exploits took place in Florida. In “Loaded Dice,” the venue is Las Vegas, capital of legal and illegal scams. Tony, looking to pick up an easy consulting fee, looks also -- and more so -- for his son Gerry, a walking, breathing ad cautioning against parenthood whom nevertheless he loves. From the very first, our action hero is in hot water. The airline has lost his luggage, and the extortionately priced trousers he buys off the rack don’t fit. He’s implicated in the murder of the mistress of a Las Vegas police lieutenant, who pursues him for most of the book for a crime he didn’t commit. But Valentine knows nothing about any of this, and there’s plenty else to keep him busy. He dissuades a jumper from jumping, falls for her (sort of) and finally finds that she’s not for him. He hunts for the elusive Gerry and corners him when it’s almost too late. He checks ambient chicanery, unmasks a dastardly ring of cheaters and foils an even more devilish terrorist plot. He shoots one villain, pummels others to bits and forgets to turn on his cellphone. As a reward, he ends up a grandfather and leaves us wanting more of this pulsing, buoyant (and, lest you forget, instructive) book. *