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On Crime

Artful homage offers Tey and sympathy

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

An Expert in Murder
By Nicola Upson
Harper, 304 pp., $24.95

Where Memories Lie
By Deborah Crombie
Morrow, 304 pp., $24.95

The Likeness By Tana French
Viking, 480 pp., $25.95

One of the earliest mystery novels that swept me away was "Brat Farrar," by Josephine Tey (pen name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). I went on to devour the rest of Tey's slender output and all the novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the modern heir to the classic British detective novel, P. D. James.

MacKintosh, who wrote plays as Gordon Daviot, was as enigmatic as her mysteries. Intensely private, she eschewed the publicity that came in 1932 with the roaring success of "Richard of Bordeaux," a play she wrote for John Gielgud. With much anticipation I picked up Nicola Upson's homage to Tey, "An Expert in Murder," a mystery in which the pseudonymous novelist is the lead character along with Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, perhaps a stand-in for Tey's fictional inspector Alan Grant.

The story opens auspiciously with Tey bound for London to see one of the last performances of "Richard" and sharing her cabin with Elspeth Simmons, a charming young woman wearing a remarkable hat ("a cloche, made of fine black straw, which was accentuated on one side by a curled white ostrich feather"). The young hatmaker turns out to be Tey's number-one fan, having seen the play numerous times. Elspeth's young man, one of the stage managers, has arranged for her to see it one last time before it closes. The chemistry between Elspeth and Tey is lovely. But much too soon Elspeth is murdered, her body found ritualistically posed in the train cabin with a pair of dolls like those sold as souvenirs at Tey's play. More murders soon follow.

For fans of the British puzzle mystery, there's a murder in a locked room, a secret passageway, a surfeit of clues, red herrings, and hidden identities. Two-thirds of the way through, one of the characters cheerfully wonders, "Has anyone else died while we've been at lunch?" The moment is jarring, a reminder that Tey never took murder lightly.

Deborah Crombie is an American who writes like a Brit. "Where Memories Lie" is her 12th novel featuring Scotland Yard detectives Gemma Jones and Duncan Kincaid. Clandestine lovers when they were partners, the unmarried pair now live together. The mystery kicks off when Gemma's friend Erika Rosenthal discovers that a brooch, stolen from her when she fled Germany after Hitler's rise to power, has turned up in Harrowby's fine jewelry auction. As a favor to Erika, Gemma offers to investigate. No sooner does she visit the auction house and raise questions about the provenance of the piece than the young woman who brought the brooch to Harrowby's is murdered.

Crombie is a master storyteller who weaves a compelling, richly textured tale. As the investigation into a growing number of murders unfolds, the story of Erika's past is revealed. There's more drama as Gemma's mother is diagnosed with leukemia, and her difficult relationships with her father and sister emerge. The stories are told from a multitude of viewpoints, each voice adding a new perspective until puzzle pieces fall together. Highly recommended, especially for fans of Elizabeth George and Tey.

"The Likeness" is Tana French's long, leisurely sequel to her Edgar Award-winning first novel, "In the Woods." Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover, this time to investigate the murder of a woman who resembles Cassie so closely she could be her twin. In another baffling coincidence, the victim is carrying an ID that identifies her as Alexandra Madison, an abandoned identity that Cassie had invented for herself on her previous undercover assignment. Immediately questions arise, not the least of which is whether Cassie herself was the intended victim.

Frank Mackey, who runs Ireland's undercover operations and trained Cassie to be a covert operative, wants to keep the murder under wraps and make "Alexandra" 's housemates believe she survived her stab wound. He wants Cassie to take the victim's place and investigate from the inside. Despite her misgivings and those of her boyfriend, Detective Sam O'Neill, Cassie agrees.

To prepare for the masquerade, Cassie watches cellphone videos of the murder victim and her four housemates, graduate students living in Whitethorn House, a mansion in a once-feudal town outside Dublin. Cassie, who has always yearned for a sister and is still traumatized by a previous case, slips all too easily into her assumed identity, seduced by the fabulous house and the warm cocoon of tight friendship. Immediately she starts to conceal the clues she discovers.

The writing is glorious, and the characters and drama so compelling that one could almost overlook the preposterous premise. But the coincidence of an identical look-alike happening upon Cassie's undercover identity and adopting it is never adequately explained. It's also a stretch to swallow Cassie's readiness to put herself in danger by withholding evidence from her handlers. I wanted to suspend disbelief, really I did . . .

Honorable mentions: In the first crime-fiction award voted on by critics, last week Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know" and Marcus Sakey's "The Blade Itself" took Strand Magazine Critics Award top honors.

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

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