5 Novel Mysteries From Old Masters

4 minute read
Philip Elmer-Dewitt

THE MAN WHO SMILED HENNING MANKELL

Scandinavian police detectives tend to be a dour lot, but Kurt Wallander may be the grumpiest of them all. In this, Mankell’s 37th novel, Wallander has recently shot and killed a man—something that would not faze a hard-boiled U.S. gunman but is enough to send this veteran cop into a drunken, downward spiral. He decides to leave the force, only to realize an hour later that he has made a terrible mistake. He comes back, of course, drawn by his guilt over a friend’s murder and eventually finds himself on the money trail of a smiling man whom Mankell sees as the picture of contemporary Swedish capitalism: perfect tan, private helicopters and a pair of homicidal mercenaries hovering in the background.

WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER ELIZABETH GEORGE

There must be fans who were heartbroken when Detective Superintendent Thomas Lynley’s wife was murdered at the end of George’s last book. But for readers secretly relieved to see the last of Lady Helen, this new mystery–the author’s 13th–is a refreshing departure. It takes a long bus ride into London’s mixed-race slums to tell the backstory of the kids who killed Her Ladyship. The hero of this tale is an 11-year-old boy named Joel, who has a retarded brother, an oversexed sister and a face covered by tea-cake-size splotches–“a physical expression of the ethnic and racial battle” raging in his blood. George, a U.S. writer whose British-style mysteries were becoming a bit formulaic, took a gamble with this one, and it pays off brilliantly.

HIT PARADE LAWRENCE BLOCK

You could not ask for a kinder, more considerate contract killer than John Keller. Animal lover, stamp collector, consummate pro, he dispatches his victims–an overpaid baseball player, a nosy therapist, a troublesome housewife–with a cool efficiency they would appreciate if they weren’t already dead. Block has more than 50 books under his belt, but none are more endearing–or subversive–than his Keller novels. In a world gone mad, the hit man with a heart of gold may be the only one who still knows right from wrong. You find yourself thinking, “So he kills people. Is that so bad?”

HUNDRED-DOLLAR BABY ROBERT B. PARKER

Parker’s characters are so tough and self-assured, you want to grab the lapels of their leather jackets and tell them, as Max Eastman once told Hemingway, to come out from behind the false hair on their chest. But Parker is always a breezy read, and in this, his 34th Spenser mystery, the macho posturing is tempered by a plot that turns on his hero’s vulnerability and one of his good deeds gone bad. A runaway he rescued from a life of low-rent prostitution (by putting her in the care of a high-priced madam) has dug herself into a hole so deep even Spenser may not be able to save her.

THE NIGHT GARDENER GEORGE PELECANOS

Gus Ramone and Doc Holiday were still rookie cops when dead kids began appearing in D.C. gardens with a bullet hole in their temple and someone else’s DNA where it should not be. Twenty years later, Ramone is a homicide detective and Holiday a limo driver (forced out on a morals charge by his ex-partner) when a new body turns up that fits the old M.O. Pelecanos has mellowed in his 14th novel–he’s less gratuitously violent, more attuned to emotional subtext–but his prose has lost none of its street cred or bite. A ghetto bully who passes as a Jamaican drug lord is actually “as American as folding money and war.”

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