This review includes a trio of books that differ greatly, even in the broad genre of mystery novels. Settings and periods range from Vienna at the in 1910 and Melbourne, Australia in the 1980s to Washington D.C. in 2000. The protagonists differ drastically too, almost as much as the authors of the books. One thing the writers do have in common: this is the first novel for each of them
Another is that none of the three have made it big since they appeared a couple of years ago, though each is worth reading for different reasons: The Fig Eater, for its appeal to those who like historical and period mysteries; The Brush-Off, because of its engaging, offbeat principal, Murray Whelan; and Run, because of the frightening picture it paints of a dark side of our society, the illegal gun trade.
The Fig Eater by Jody Shields features Erszébet, wife of the Inspector, obsessed with solving a crime her husband is investigating. Author Ms. Shields is a Renaissance woman. She was design editor of the New York Times Magazine and an editor at Vogue and Home and Garden, wrote two non-fiction books and several screen plays, has a master’s degree in art. Her prints are in several collections, including the Museum of Modern Art.
In the The Brush-Off, Shane Maloney introduces us to Murray Whelan, political aide to Australia’s newly-appointed culture minister. Maloney has been a newspaper columnist, lifeguard and director of the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
Run comes from the keyboard of Douglas E. Winter, a Washington, D.C. attorney, a member of the National Book Critics Circle and editor of Prime Evil, a best-selling anthology of horror and suspense fiction.
The body lies in a secluded area of the Volksgarten, not far from Vienna’s notorious Spittleberg District. We learn that the victim’s name is Dora and that she is the daughter of a respectable bourgeois family. The inspector, a pioneer in rationalist criminology, embarks on his investigation with his assistant Franz. They follow the latest scientific methods, including careful assembly of forensic evidence.
Meanwhile his wife Erszébet, not Viennese but Hungarian and steeped in Gypsy lore and superstition, becomes interested and launches her own secret, parallel investigation. She enlists the aid of Wally, a young English nanny for a wealthy Vienna family. They find an ally in Egon, a freelance photographer often used by the police to take crime scene photos.
The Inspector pays little attention to portions of fresh figs found in Dora’s stomach during the autopsy. Apparently she ate them shortly before she died because large pieces were undigested. To Erszébet, however, the figs are a vital clue, and they help her solve the crime.
These problems include two murders, art forgeries on a grand scale and financial shenanigans that threaten the political survival of Murray and his boss.
It all starts during a reception at the Center for Modern Art in Melbourne, where Murray meets the lovely, playful Salina, an art magazine editor, and has high hopes that a romantic interlude will follow. Instead, a young artist turns up dead in an ornamental pool, and turns out to be Salina’s fiance. So much for romance!
And was the death suicide or murder? Whelan has to become a “reluctant detective” to fend off fall-out from threatening his job. He proves to be remarkably effective at it, despite having to entertain his young son at the same time. (He is divorced and his wife moved away, so 10-year-old Redmond’s visits are rare.)
Maloney writes with humor as he deftly weaves a plot line that moves his hero from misadventure to misadventure. There is a hint of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole in Whelan, though without the bravura and underlying hard edge—and there are times when Murray could use a partner like Joe Pike, Cole’s formidable, enigmatic sidekick.
I enjoyed this book a lot, and am anxious to read Maloney’s second and third Murray Whelan books: Nice Try and Stiff, which is a prequel to The Brush-Off.
Run is bloody and violent in the extreme … but, if widely read, might do more for the anti-gun movement than a half-dozen marches.
The protagonist, Burdon Lane, is no hero. “I’m not one of the good guys,” he tells us up front. His business card lists him as Executive VP of UniArms, Alexandria, Virginia He is in fact a gun-runner, a “good soldier,” his boss calls him. On the job, he carries two Glock 19 pistols and a duffel bag loaded with a Mossberg shotgun and assorted ammunition. An excellent marksman and arms expert, Lane makes illegal gun runs, often up the “Iron Highway,” “from the Dirty City” (D.C.) to Manhattan. Gun-runners call it that because so many guns (“iron”) follow the route north.
Lane has misgivings about his latest run from the start. It involves delivering a large shipment of guns to a powerful New York gang of African Americans (the “N” word appears frequently) with the help of the U Street Crew (USC), which rules a black D.C. ghetto. “Don’t worry,” he is told, “it will be a milk run.” It proves anything but! Nothing is as it seems and many of the characters are not what they first appear to be. The delivery ends in the assassination of a popular black civil rights leader and a blood bath in which members from both gangs are slaughtered.
Lane lands in the middle of a wheels-within-wheels conspiracy of major proportions. It involves shadowy figures from both government and the arms industry. His partner, Renny Two-Hands, is killed and Lane himself escapes death narrowly. He partners with Jinx, a USC gangsta, and they set out for revenge. Climax is a mild term for what follows: a firefight in a cathedral, during a wedding! The body count soars but Lane, though wounded, survives.
Run is one of the most powerful, disturbing novels I’ve read in years. Although destined to be lumped in the “Mystery” genre, it is more than that: a mirror reflecting some of the sordid facts of life that plague our society today.