On crime

Sleuths stuck in their own tracks

Email|Print| Text size + By Hallie Ephron
December 30, 2007

Person of Interest
By Theresa Schwegel
St. Martin's, 384 pp, $24.95

By Caro Ramsay
Pegasus, 401 pp., $25

Souls of Angels
By Thomas Eidson
Random House, 304 pp., $24.95

Today's crime novels often feed off a toxic triangle of the detective, his or her family, and the detective's all-consuming work.

In Theresa Schwegel's third novel, "Person of Interest," we get a poisonously unhappy family, each one self-obsessed and not in the least bit likable, set against a backdrop of gang violence. Chicago detective Craig McHugh of the Gang Unit has been working undercover, trying to infiltrate the world of Chinese and Vietnamese gangs. His access point is a Chinese poker game, and he's been working overtime and gambling with his own money to stay in the game. But any break in the case remains elusive. One night, a bunch of black-suited thugs show up like a SWAT team, and the game turns seriously nasty.

Leslie, Craig's unhappy wife, works a dead-end, $10-an-hour job as a florist. One minute, she's mooning over her daughter's handsome boyfriend, and the next, she's getting what sounds like the call that every police officer's wife dreads. Worse, she discovers that she's so angry with her husband's neglect that she'd actually be happy to hear that he's been killed in the line of duty. Their sulky, 17-year-old daughter Ivy is troubled, too. She's been arrested at a nightclub, holding tabs of ecstasy that she claims belong to someone else.

Ambitious and carefully constructed, with complex characters and a warped moral compass, the novel is propelled forward by misunderstandings and by information that Craig, Leslie, and Ivy withhold from one another until all are in mortal peril. The graphic violence and abject humiliation the characters undergo are unflinching, riveting, and, at the same time, hard for this reader to get through. Schwegel nails the estranged husband-wife dynamic, but she's less convincing with the mother-daughter bond.

Schwegel, who came on like gangbusters with her Edgar Award-winning first novel, "Officer Down," delivers a tough, hard-bitten story with an ultimately redemptive ending.

With Scottish writer Caro Ramsay's debut novel, "Absolution," we get another burnt-out, alcoholic detective, this one obsessed with finding a serial killer and haunted by the deaths of his brother, his mother, and a beautiful woman whose murder he never solved.

The first part of the book is a gorgeously rendered flashback to 1984. Reminiscent of a gender-reversed "English Patient," Police Constable Alan McAlpine watches over a gauze-swathed young woman, hospitalized after a near-fatal acid attack. Ramsay writes alternately from McAlpine's perspective as he idealizes and falls in love with this fragile victim, and from the woman's perspective as she slowly awakes. It's a tour-de-force opening that comes to a shocking end, and it delivers that frisson of realization that perhaps this is a writer capable of great things.

Sadly, the novel falters when the story picks up, 22 years later, with Detective Chief Inspector McAlpine returning to the same precinct to take over the hunt for a serial killer who chloroforms and then disembowels his female victims. McAlpine is married to a successful artist and gallery owner who adores him and tolerates his obsession with work. But he's still haunted by the beautiful victim from his past, who seems to come to life as this new case takes him back to the Glasgow neighborhood where she lived.

This novel invites comparisons to the work of Ian Rankin and his alcoholic, disaffected inspector Rebus. Though the setting is Glasgow (not Edinburgh), as with Rankin's work this novel gets its juice from a rich cast of characters with messy lives, set in a complex, believable world. But these characters fall victim to an overcomplicated plot, and crime-fiction readers will balk at swallowing three whopping coincidences and a bleak ending. This is a writer with huge promise, but she's simply bitten off more here than she can chew.

The sleuth in Marblehead author Thomas Eidson's fifth suspense novel, "Souls of Angels," is a nun. Set in a beautifully drawn 1880s Los Angeles, it opens with Sister Ria returning home ("the last place on God's good earth she wanted to be"), weary from a weeks-long trek from her convent in Poona, India, where she's been tending dying lepers. She's been cabled that her father has been condemned to death for murdering a pregnant prostitute, and though she detests Don Maximiato, she feels bound to honor a promise she made to her mother to take care of him.

Her father is a prolific artist, revered by the locals as a saintly war hero, but he's also crazy as a bedbug. Sister Ria soon discovers that the evidence against him is circumstantial, but hatred clouds her reason as she remembers the abuse she endured from him.

After a strong start, this book slows to a crawl as Sister Ria ventures into shadows and back alleys, looking for clues. With predictable frequency, a bogeyman in a brown cutaway jacket and black fedora leaps out at her - never for long enough, of course, for her to see his face. Overall, the novel feels like a tedious costume drama with a story that spirals downward toward a predictable end.

Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style." Contact her through

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