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On Crime

Hot on the trail of clues in Europe

A steamy Venice summer sets the stage for the latest Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery. A steamy Venice summer sets the stage for the latest Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery. (Betsy Vereckey/ Associated Press)
By Hallie Ephron
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2010

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A trio of late summer mystery reads take armchair travelers to Europe. First stop, Italy where the humid, oppressive Venetian summer is palpable in Donna Leon’s 19th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, “A Question of Belief.” Desperate to get out of town along with the rest of Venice’s residents, Brunetti wonders whether criminals could “be induced to leave people alone until the end of this heat spell.” He yearns for a vacation in the mountains with his family, if only the Romanians would kindly “stop picking pockets,” the Gypsies “stop sending their children to break into homes,” and the Albanians “stop selling drugs.”

And those are just the routine crimes. Two other cases — one unofficial and one official — compete for his attention. As a favor to his colleague Ispettore Vianello, Brunetti is looking into sketchy fortunetellers who might be the recipients of large sums of cash that Vianello’s aunt has withdrawn from her bank account. The other case involves a pattern brought to his attention by an honorable bureaucrat who has noticed trial postponements issued by a Judge Cotellini. In each case, justification for the delay is missing paperwork, normally provided by the otherwise scrupulously efficient Araldo Fontana. Is it a coincidence, Brunetti wonders, that Araldo lives in a comfortable apartment that belies his modest means?

This is a leisurely tale with no gun battles or car chases, just solid police procedure, the sifting of clues, and belatedly, a murder. The hero is a complex, cynical, and at times melancholy family man, trying to do his job and often stymied by government bureaucracy and blustering superiors.

Leon creates such a rich sense of place that reading often feels like a slow vaporetto ride through the swelteringly humid canals of Venice, past splendid bridges and palazzi with time out for tramezzini and rich Italian coffee.

Then, continue south to the backwater of Bari, Italy, the setting for Gianico Carofiglio’s “The Past is a Foreign Country.” There, a young and all too impressionable Giorgio Cipriani, a “model student” of law, takes up with fellow student, Francesco Carducci. The charming and far more worldly Francesco is a sort of magician whose specialty is cheating at cards.

“You can’t cheat alone . . .,” Francesco explains to Giorgio. “The assistant is just as important as the magician. One fiddles the cards, the other cashes in and everyone’s happy.’’

Giorgio becomes Francesco’s shill. He tells himself that the marks that he and Francesco scam, and the women they use have it coming to them. Gradually Giorgio abandons his law studies and his girlfriend, leaving his former self further and further behind. His world has “suddenly [sped] up. Like a spaceship in a cartoon or a sci-fi film that shoots up into the sky and disappears amongst the stars.”

Around page 90, the reader meets brooding Lieutenant Giorgio Chiti, a police detective tracking a serial rapist who is terrorizing the citizens of Bari. The introduction of this second plot feels jarring, like an afterthought. It shouldn’t work, and yet in the end, through some clever plotting, it does.

The translation by Howard Curtis is poetic and compelling. Reading Giorgio’s descent into depravity is like watching a slow-motion car wreck as the reader wonders: Will there ever be a line Giorgio won’t cross?

On to Slovakia for Michael Genelin’s “The Magician’s Accomplice.” In this third series novel, the eponymous accomplice is Slovak Commander Jana Matinova; the magician is an elderly gentleman and “Clown Professor of Magic.” Jana is investigating the murder of the professor’s nephew, a young man who was shot multiple times with an assassin’s accuracy through the window of Bratislava’s grand Savoy Hotel. Young Denis had been enjoying a lavish “Royal Breakfast,” all the more delicious because he’d snuck himself in as a hotel guest. A day later prosecutor Peter Saris is killed by a bomb in his office.

One professional assassination is highly unusual in Bratislava; two are extraordinary. But before Jana can begin to make sense of them, her superior, Colonel Trokan, takes her off both cases. Her connection to the second victim is too personal — Saris was her lover.

Trokan orders Jana to go to The Hague as Slovakia’s new representative to Europol. Reluctantly she goes, and on the plane she meets the clown professor, who charms her with his tricks and gentle self-deprecating humor.

No sooner does Jana arrive in The Hague than she discovers that Slovakia’s other police representative of Europol has disappeared. Far from being banished from the investigation, escalating violence has followed her to The Hague.

Jana, like a Femme Nikita working the right side of the law, and her professor sidekick are a study in opposites, trading the roles of magician and accomplice in order to stay one step ahead of the assassins. Genelin, like a consummate conjurer himself, effectively deploys a complex story and massive cast of characters to dazzle the reader and pull more than a few rabbits out of his hat.

Hallie Ephron is the author of “Never Tell a Lie” and “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.” Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

A QUESTION OF BELIEF
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly, 288 pp., $24

THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY
By Gianrico Carofiglio
Translated from Italian by Howard Curtis
Minotaur, 256 pp., $24.99

THE MAGICIAN’S ACCOMPLICE
By Michael Genelin
Soho Crime, 336 pp., $25