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On Crime

Worlds of brutality and comic undead

By Hallie Ephron
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2010

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“Dying Gasp,’’ Leighton Gage’s third series novel featuring Brazilian Chief Inspector Mario Silva is a dark, violent book with characters that seethe on the page. It opens with a train bombing in Amsterdam. The collateral damage of a nearby postal truck scatters mail across the scene of the blast. Among the debris is an unmarked packet containing an undamaged DVD. A Dutch postal inspector finds, to his horror, that it contains a snuff video of a woman being raped and then murdered.

Meanwhile in Brazil, Silva is asked to take charge of an investigation into the disappearance of Marta Nascimento Malan, the teenage granddaughter of Roberto Malan, a senior government official. Marta and an older girl were last seen on a beach at Recife. Marta has run away many times before. In a country rife with political corruption, Silva thinks this belated call to investigate is a cover-up to protect her powerful family’s reputation. But he feels he has to placate higher-ups. Recent newspaper articles called for his firing in the wake of a failed attempt to capture cold-blooded serial killer, Claudia Andrade, a doctor who harvested organs from scores of “living, breathing human beings.’’

The search for Marta takes him to a Manaus, a miserable town reeking of rotten fish on the banks of the Amazon, and deep into Brazil’s underworld of child prostitutes. Soon, he sees a connection between the snuff video and Marta’s disappearance, and wonders whether the missing Dr. Andrade is the woman behind the camera. He and his deputy can only hope that Marta hasn’t fallen into her hands.

This is strong stuff for strong stomachs, and giant coincidences that propel this plot are nearly eclipsed by compelling writing. Readers will smell the steam and stench of the Amazon and recoil from the torture and depredation from which Gage averts his lens, barely in time.

Lori Armstrong’s “No Mercy’’ begins with a merciless description of a youth’s body (“shriveled flaps of skin . . . [t]he crotch of the athletic shorts were ripped away . . .’’) torn apart by animal predators, cooking in the blazing South Dakota sun. From there we get flashbacks of an exhilarated Mercy Gunderson, at about the same age as the dead boy, popping the head off a living prairie dog with a single bullet while her sheriff father chuckles his approval.

Back in the present we join Mercy as she watches cows herded into a truck at the bucolic Gunderson Ranch, an operation she has just taken over after her father’s death. There are hints of Mercy’s personal burdens of family tragedies and traumatic military experiences in Iraq.

I know authors are often advised to give their characters a haunted past, but poor Mercy is stalked by more sadness than you can shake a stick at. Booze and pills are all that keep her going while she tries to reconnect with her sister, Hope, and her nephew, Levi, and undertakes the “never-ending, back-breaking work’’ that she ran away from “as soon as [she] was legal.’’ When Levi’s friend is found dead and the local sheriff seems stuck on automatic pilot, neighbors urge Mercy to investigate - after all, she’s their trusted former sheriff’s daughter.

Mercy is a take-no-prisoners toughie with (of course) a soft vulnerable underbelly.

But Armstrong throws new tragedy on top of old until Mercy starts to feel like Job and reading starts to feel like having a root canal. But what works, and it really works, is a voice laced with so much attitude and personality that it nearly redeems the story.

Michael Thomas Ford’s campy tale with Jane Austen as a vampire, “Jane Bites Back,’’ goes way over the top. The narrator is the cool, wittily acerbic observer Elizabeth Jane Fairfax, a bookstore owner in upstate New York, and the latest identity of the undead, 233-year-old Austen.

It opens with a hilarious book signing at the store. Author Melodie Gladstone, so “birdlike’’ that she “might at any moment collapse under the weight of her own head,’’ humps her self-help book, “Waiting for Mr. Darcy.’’ In it she urges women to wait for their perfect mate. When her audience, many of them dressed Elizabethan style, has departed, Melodie dishes with Elizabeth: “It’s just my piece of the Austen pie. Everyone’s now in on it.’’ Her publisher, she says, has a massage book coming out, “Sense and Sensuality.’’ Elizabeth is horrified and quite literally makes a meal of her, bitter that for centuries she’s been collecting rejection letters for an unpublished manuscript, “Constance.’’

Crime fiction readers may need to skip past the occasional ravished bits, like a vigorously rendered flashback to when Jane was “turned.’’ (“ ‘They all think of you as a quiet afternoon,’ he said. ‘But inside you rage with passion, don’t you?’ ’’) The villain from the past who got to Jane shows up and threatens to turn Elizabeth’s young assistant named (what else?) Lucy, and a murderous rival appears to spoil Jane’s long-awaited good fortune.

This is a genre-busting and only occasionally bodice ripping romp that keeps us from taking crime too seriously.

Hallie Ephron is author of “The Bibliophile’s Devotional’’ and “Never Tell a Lie.’’

DYING GASP
by Leighton Gage
Soho, 336 pp., $24

NO MERCY
by Lori Armstrong
Touchstone, 320 pp., $25

JANE BITES BACK
by Michael Thomas Ford
Ballantine, 320 pp., $14