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On Crime

A house called Wit's End is only the beginning

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hallie Ephron
April 27, 2008

Wit’s End
By Karen Joy Fowler
Putnam, 324 pp., $24.95

Delusion
By Peter Abrahams
Morrow, 297 pp., $24.95

Cheating at Solitaire
By Jane Haddam
St. Martin’s, 400 pp., $24.95

Literary writers from John Banville to Michael Chabon and Joyce Carol Oates have taken a turn writing mysteries. Now we have Karen Joy Fowler ("The Jane Austen Book Club") with "Wit's End," an idiosyncratic mystery that feels like a leisurely wander through a hall of mirrors.

Protagonist Rima Lanisell is unhinged by the recent death of her journalist father and still mourning the death of her younger brother. Her mother died years earlier. Finding herself without family, she seeks refuge at the Santa Cruz, Calif., home of her godmother, famous mystery author Addison ("A. B.") Early. Addison's beachside house (Wit's End) is a rambling affair, its attic stuffed with books and letters, and its rooms filled with dollhouses - meticulously constructed crime scenes from A. B. Early books. Rima wonders why she can't find the one for "Ice City," the novel that fascinates her most. In it, a character named after Rima's father kills his wife.

The novel "Ice City," the narrator tells us, is "about betrayal, the unforeseen consequences of careless actions, the advisability of keeping secrets" - a perfect description of "Wit's End." Ice City is not a city at all, but an imaginary bar where fictional detective Maxwell Lane goes to sort out his thoughts. It's "a state of mind, a psychological destination" where "made-up drinks are served to made-up people."

With its book within a book, houses within a house, and dreamy stream-of-consciousness narration, this is a novel in which reality and virtual reality, fact and fiction, memories and dreams merge. As Rima gropes her way back to the real world, mysteries are unraveled. Strongly recommended, this is a head trip that takes the reader to unexpected places.

Peter Abrahams's taut new novel, "Delusion," is set in the once-pristine New Orleans suburb of Belle Ville in the aftermath of Bernardine, a Katrina-like disaster. Putrefaction permeates the pages as the "the stink of mud, rot, decomposition" wafts from nearby Lower Town, where the cleanup from storm-breached levees goes on.

Storytelling alternates between the points of view of two of life's victims, Alvin DuPree and Nell Jarreau. "Pirate" DuPree has served 20 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He wears a patch after having an eye gouged out by a fellow inmate. Once angry, restless, and violent, he has achieved a state of Zen-like "peace, in harmony with passing time," as he fondles a tasseled bookmark in his Bible, where, over and over, he reads the story of Job, his long-suffering soul mate. DuPree's tenuous equilibrium is jolted by Susannah Lipton, a young lawyer with the Justice Project who tells him that exonerating evidence has been discovered: a videotape that shows DuPree buying liquor at the time when he was supposedly miles away murdering Johnny Blanton.

Nell was Blanton's girlfriend, and it was her eyewitness testimony that sent DuPree to jail. Later, she gave birth to Blanton's daughter and married the kind detective in charge of the murder investigation. He is now sheriff of Belle Ville. DuPree's dream come true is Nell's worst nightmare. Her feelings of denial turn to guilt and remorse, and then to anguish as she realizes that the real killer might still be at large. It could even be someone very close to her.

Abrahams constructs a powder keg of suspense, using vivid characterization and underwritten prose. He manages to imbue this page-turner with themes of racial and economic injustice while conjuring the ghost of Hamlet's father to hover in the wings. This is another stellar mystery from one of New England's best.

"Cheating at Solitaire," Jane Haddam's latest mystery featuring FBI agent Gregor Demarkian, is set in Oscartown on the posh resort island of Margaret's Harbor (read Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard). The normally quiet winter is jolted by an influx of Hollywood types, filming a movie. A nor'easter blows in and shooting halts, cellphone service goes down, and snow piles up, closing the roads - the perfect Agatha Christie setup. A wrecked purple van is found down an embankment; in the driver's seat is Mark Anderman, a worker on the set and "boy toy" to one of the young actresses. He's been shot in the head.

Haddam develops an impressive array of characters. A manipulative heiress and minor acting talent, Kendra Rhode echoes Paris Hilton ("I define what it means to be one of the hot people"). Two flaky young actresses, Arrow Normand and Marcey Mandret, lost girls who drink and misbehave, feel like stand-ins for Britney and Lindsay. Older actor Stewart Gordon is the only one among the movie set with a grain of sense. He brings in old friend Demarkian to investigate, hoping to prevent the clueless local constabulary from pinning the murder on Marcey.

Though at times the novel veers over the edge into slapstick and farce, it has a sharply satirical edge as it takes on the cult of celebrity. In a sober moment, one of the young actresses observes, "When we care only about money and fame and youth, we don't just hurt ourselves, we hurt all humanity everywhere, we make the world a worse place than it could be." Sounds a little like she's giving the Girl Scout pledge, but she's that kind of character, and it's a message for our time.

Hallie Ephron is author of "1001 Books for Every Mood." Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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