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Mysteries the world over

Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Dark Voyage

A Novel

Alan Furst

Random House: 260 pp., $24.95

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The Society

A Novel

Michael Palmer

Bantam: 368 pp., $25

*

Semiautomatic

A Novel

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Robert Reuland

Random House: 256 pp., $24.95

*

Deadline in Athens

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An Inspector Costas Haritos Mystery

Petros Markaris

Translated from the Greek by David Connolly

Grove Press: 296 pp., $23

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“No man will be a sailor,” quoth Dr. Johnson, “who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail, for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” In Alan Furst’s “Dark Voyage,” E.M. DeHaan, captain of the Dutch tramp freighter Noordendam, is full of the contrivance (that is the ingenuity) to get out of tight scrapes, of which he faces many. It’s spring 1941, Hitler’s hordes bestride Europe and infiltrate the seas. Since war began 19 months before, Brits and their allies have lost 1,596 merchant vessels. There’s a good chance that DeHaan’s old 5,000-tonner, which runs 11 knots at best, will soon add to that number, once Dutch Naval Intelligence recruits it for a string of dodgy secret missions. Disguised as a Spanish (hence neutral) craft, the vessel and its motley crew plies from Tangier to the Tunisian coast for a commando raid; it carries bombs to Crete in the grip of battle, then shifts mysterious cargo to Sweden and the Baltic, where its gyre ends just as the Germans invade Russia.

The earth’s surface is nearly four-fifths water. By the time Furst’s tale was done, I thought the Noordendam had navigated most of it, during which his text provided helpful explanations for the nautically impaired and reading lists for the intellectually challenged. Skirting minefields, dodging Germans he can’t outrun, DeHaan doesn’t lose his cool. The mildest man who ever scuttled ship or cut a throat (as Byron remarked about one of his not-quite heroes), he proves himself competent, confident and quietly compelling. With danger at his elbow, he smokes his small cigars and faces stark predicaments unruffled. The wide-ranging tale is just as complex as the man: as choppy as the seas sailed by the Noordendam, as crepuscular as the ghosts of wartime past. Its fast-cut scenes offer no resolution. Doom-laden, it annihilates all that’s made to a bleached spot in a bleak shade. But DeHaan inveigles as he goes, and Furst ensnares his readers. As usual.

More fraudulence than some energy conglomerates generate, more medical information than “ER” conveys and more thrills than “Jurassic Park”: that’s Michael Palmer’s “The Society” -- a jeremiad against HMOs, their greed, their quest for ever more ways to raise fees, cut services and deny coverage to those most in need.

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In Palmer’s fable of medical suspense, several managed-care executives are dispatched with extreme prejudice. More brutal executions are expected to follow, but (despite the assassin’s cryptic messages) there’s no telling who is responsible. “Given their policies,” opines Will Grant, a successful surgeon and a fine physician, “it was only a matter of time before someone went postal on them.” Grant is a leading light of the Hippocrates Society, which seeks to reclaim the profession from the grip of niggards bent on denying care to widows, orphans and oldsters. He pays no heed to fallible surgeries, to occasionally feckless medical staff, nurses or hospital bureaucracies, to hypochondriac or litigious patients who drive up the cost of care and malpractice insurance.

Unfortunately, the dedicated doctor finds himself set up as the prime suspect of apparently clueless policemen, and he would be in hot water indeed were it not for a keen young policewoman’s instincts as well as his own. So Det. Sgt. Patty Moriarity and intrepid Grant dowse, hack and quickstep through the maze of misdirections and ambushes where lurks their unseen foe, to a drizzle of disclosures and a finale that never stops culminating. By the end, Will is vindicated, villains are confounded, cretinous cops are faced with their imbecility, and the country teeters on the brink of national health insurance. That’s what we call fiction.

Robert Reuland’s muscular “Semiautomatic” has a robbery going down in a bodega in East New York. The storekeeper is shot dead; a young thug is arrested. But others are involved in a pileup of falsehoods, deceptions and skulduggery: criminals, cops and officers of the court. Assistant Dist. Atty. Andrew Giobberti is brought back from departmental exile to prosecute the case. We are in Brooklyn, where (Reuland told New York magazine) we’ve got more dead bodies per square inch than anyplace else and the police can’t tell perp, partner, victim, witness apart. Now Giobberti and his co-adjutrix, Laurel Ashfield, are in danger of sacrificing their own standards and becoming as morally flexible as their fellows. They avoid that trap at the last moment and justice will be served, though more by luck than judgment. Even so, the way there has been slow and painful. There’s no reason to think that the future will be brighter.

Once a Brooklyn prosecutor himself, Reuland wonderfully conveys the waiting, wasted time and doubts that beset his kind. Few expletives are deleted. Junctures are opaque, exchanges oblique, circumstances as turbid as the politics. But there’s abundant local color: There’s elevator trouble, testimony trouble, filthy courtroom trouble and introspection trouble (too much introspection is trouble). The writing is deliberate, incisive, fascinating. Who still pretends that off-court and in-the-courtroom drama is not literature?

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Rather as in Brooklyn, Petros Markaris’ “Deadline in Athens” unfolds in a country where venality may bite you in the leg at any time. It is the early 1990s. The Olympics aren’t even a gleam. The biggest news is that a local pedophile has been released from jail early. With little else to lead the evening news except a couple of slaughtered foreigners, the media twitch and bubble. Their feeding frenzy flares when two TV reporters are murdered and the preferred suspect is the pedophiliac-at-large. Inspector Costas Haritos of Athens Homicide is not so sure. He spends most of the book not sure at all about one suspect after another.

Blundering, bullying and abrasive but shrewd, stubborn and fundamentally decent, Haritos’ style is as scabrous as his marriage. Condemned to look for needles in a haystack of potential perps, he also has to negotiate the treacherous waters of media relations, watch his back in the no less treacherous arena of police politics and elude the pitfalls of a discordant home life. His investigation falters, follows false trails and rewarding ones, and picks up speed as suspects are eliminated until the mystery is resolved in a series of startling revelations.

Haritos grows on you; so do the story’s jerky pace and raspy accents. There is much detail about Athens’ topography and maddening traffic jams; about Greek geography, customs, fraud and bent officials; about Albanian immigrants, mostly illegal, often criminal; about police in bed with media they don’t want to cross; and a tale well told, set in a novel and engaging locale. There’s also the consoling thought that Athenian smog is a good deal worse than that of L.A. *


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