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On Crime

Murder amid landscapes of prejudice

Portobello Road in London, with its shops and activity, gives Ruth Rendell’s book its title. Portobello Road in London, with its shops and activity, gives Ruth Rendell’s book its title. (Josep Renalias)
By Hallie Ephron
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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My pick of October’s crop of crime novels is Tom Franklin’s stunner “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.” It takes its name from the way that Southern children are taught to spell Mississippi: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.” Set in the crumbling rural backwater of Chabot, Miss., “population give or take five hundred’’ and so desolate that it doesn’t even have a barber shop, the novel tells the story of two men who grew up there on opposite sides of the track and once shared a secret friendship.

Larry Ott is a white man who grew up wealthy. His father owned vast acreage and ran a gas station that Ott still owns, though his customers are few and far between. He is ostracized by neighbors who consider him a monster who murdered a girl when he was in high school.

Silas “32” Jones is a black man who grew up dirt poor with his mother in a shack on the Ott’s land. Once a star baseball player, he managed to leave Chabot but has returned 20 years later as the town’s constable.

Jones avoids contact with the man who was once his friend, but soon finds himself investigating a young woman’s disappearance with Ott the prime suspect, and a shooting with Ott the victim.

This powerful story of redemption explores the toxic effects of prejudice. It is satisfying in a way that few crime novels are. The characters are complex, the situation intriguing and thoroughly believable, and the possibilities of mystery as a genre thoroughly exploited.

The star of “Portobello Road,” Ruth Rendell’s latest novel, is the street that gives the book its title. “The street is long, like a centipede snaking up from Pembridge Road in the south to Kensal Town in the north. . . . Shops line it and spill into the legs, which are its side streets.” It’s a vibrant place where anything anyone could possibly want is for sale. “The moment you . . . set foot in the market, you feel a touch of excitement, an indrawing of breath, a pinch in the heart. And once you have been, you have to go again.”

Rendell observes that “Eccentricity is the norm in the Portobello Road,” and one can imagine the author strolling past the stalls and antique stores and picking out passersby — a stolid middle-aged couple; an emaciated elderly eccentric who looks like Voltaire; a young layabout on the lookout for easy pockets to pick; a shabby, long-haired man in dark, dark glasses, muttering to himself — and making them her characters.

Rendell can skewer a character with a single line, as when she dismisses one as “the kind of trophy wife rich men . . . marry; with toothpaste-advertisement teeth and long fingernails on unused hands,” but she is kind to most of the oddballs in this complex tapestry of intersecting lives. These include Eugene Wren, a 50-year-old bachelor and successful antiques dealer who is hiding a fearsome addiction to sugarless chocolate sweets. He finds a packet of money and endeavors to return it to his rightful owner, drawing his girlfriend, physician Ella Cotswold, into the orbit of the spooky and emotionally needy Joel Roseman, a man who eschews human company and daylight.

This is one of Rendell’s more upbeat forays, a comedy of manners shaded with menace, its mystery leavened with romance. Violence, when it comes, feels more like a grace note here because there would, after all, be violence in Portobello Road.

What if Weimar Berlin’s celebrity detective, credited with tracking down the monster Child Eater, were a Jew? This is the intriguing premise of Paul Grossman’s riveting debut novel, “The Sleepwalkers.”

Berlin is a city “maddened by years of war, defeat, revolution, hyperinflation, and now the Great Depression, nearly a million unemployed, its government paralyzed, the whole place topsy-turvy with depravity.” The story opens in 1922 with Willi Kraus watching Marlena Dietrich perform, hypnotized by her legs; hours later, he’s investigating the discovery of a “floater,” a beautiful young woman pulled from the weeds by the river. To his horror, he finds her legs are grotesquely misshapen (like a mermaid’s) and her head shaved. He and his colleagues speculate that she’s an escapee from a local mental hospital, but they find something pinned to her torn shirt that takes their investigation into far more dangerous territory. No sooner is he making headway than he’s pulled off to search for a missing Bulgarian princess who was last seen apparently sleepwalking through city streets.

Of course the German people, including Jews, are sleepwalkers, too, in their refusal to believe what the Nazis are up to until it’s too late. The reader knows what Willi only painstakingly discovers is going on. He must constantly assess how much he is willing to put himself and the people he loves in danger in what the readers know will be a futile effort to halt genuine evil.

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

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER
By Tom Franklin
William Morrow, 288 pp., $24.99

PORTOBELLO ROAD
By Ruth Rendell
Scribner, 304 pp., $26

THE SLEEPWALKERS
By Paul Grossman
St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $24.99