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book review

True Believers

By Michael Blair, Linda Leith Publishing, 404 pages, $16.95

"Gullibility kills." The epigram, from Carl Sagan, opens this superb novel by Montreal author Michael Blair. This is his sixth book but it's far and away his best, with a plot so outrageous and original that I had to read it twice just to pick up things I missed. Hack Loomis is a PI in Burlington, Vt. There's not much for a professional peeper to do in Burlington, so Hack agrees to check into the possible disappearance of his assistant's friend, Belle Ryerson. It appears that Belle's last known location was a meeting of UFO enthusiasts run by a psychiatrist and a very attractive woman who claims to be in touch with a space-alien mothership. No one is wearing tinfoil helmets, but they're close. Naturally, one theory of Belle's sudden exit is a trip to a galaxy far, far away. Hack is not deterred by ideas spun from old alien movies. He figures Belle is right on planet Earth and someone with human DNA knows where, so the search is on. The path is funny, smart and full of great dialogue and clever characters. Gullibility kills, all right, but it also makes for a terrific plotline for a possible murder.

The Drop Zone

By Bob Kroll, ECW, 335 pages, $14.95

This debut, which introduces Detective T.J. Peterson, is a stylish noir cop novel with some complex psychological plotlines revolving around a murder. This goes to the "worse crimes than murder" row where man's inhumanity is on full display. The Drop Zone is a rubble-strewn bit of land where prostitutes ply their trade and occasional bodies turn up. Detective Peterson is lured there by a mysterious caller and then finds nothing. So he takes off to drown his disgust and forget the strange Skypes from his estranged daughter. After that, still hungover, he's called to the first body, a Catholic priest who, seemingly, never did anyone harm. The main plotline here is good, despite some first-novel wobbles, but one of the mysteries is why Bob Kroll, who hails from Halifax, doesn't identify the city where his story is set. It's obviously Canadian and probably Halifax but it's furry. In a genre where cities have personalities and there are already some fine Halifax detectives, he could and should do better. Still, this is a great opening and Peterson seems destined to return.

The Storm Murders

By John Farrow, St. Martin's, 320 pages, $29.99

It's been more than 15 years since Montreal author John Farrow introduced his sharp Sûreté du Québec detective Émile Cinq-Mars. City of Ice was a great and promising debut and then Farrow stopped to write other books. Now, Cinq-Mars is back, older, retired, antsy and faced with multiple murders. Farrow says he plans a trilogy rooted in extreme weather. The Storm Murders certainly fits that bill. We begin with a rural idyll. Two Sûreté patrolmen are headed through fresh snow on a brilliant winter day. Their destination is an isolated farmhouse. There's been a call advising of a crime in progress. When they arrive, barely plowing through fresh drifts, the first thing they notice is that there are no footprints. Either there is no crime or the perp is still in the house. The dead body they see confirms that something happened, but is it murder or suicide? We follow as they check and that's where the suspense begins. The opening of The Storm Murders is riveting and the rest of the novel stays that way. Farrow has lost none of his ability and Émile Cinq-Mars none of his charm. Let's hope we don't have to wait so long for the third book in the series.

The Ravens

By Vidar Sundstol, translated by Tiina Nunnally, University of Minnesota Press, 272 pages, $24.95

The Ravens is the final book in the wonderful Minnesota Trilogy by Norwegian writer Vidar Sundstol and set among the descendants of Norwegians who settled north of Lake Superior in the 19th century. The investigator is Forest Service ranger Lance Hansen, a native of those parts, whose hobby is genealogy and who serves as the community's unofficial historian. Over the past books, we have seen how a murder has turned into a series of other mysteries, none of them settled to Hansen's satisfaction. This time out, Hansen's life is upside down. He's having visions of Swamper Caribou, an Ojibwa medicine man who died a century earlier. Then there are the visions of his father-in-law Willy Dupree, who claims to be able to interpret dreams. It's all related but Hansen has to sort out the dreams from the clues and sift history to uncover an old crime and shocking new ones. The resolution when it comes is not a twist but it is satisfying.

Jigsaw Man

By Elena Forbes, Spiderline/Anansi, 345 pages, $19.95

Anansi's line of crime fiction is rapidly becoming one of the best in Canada and this latest entry in the superb Mark Tartaglia series shows why. Elena Forbes builds a story on the psychology of the detective and she's a master at complex plots. Jigsaw Man is the fourth book and the best to date. Mark Tartaglia spends a delightful night with an interesting and sensuous woman he's just met. Is it a hotel one-night-stand or the beginning of something else? He leaves wondering and then, the next day, he's summoned to the same hotel on a murder. The victim is the same woman he spent much of the night with. He is certainly one of the last to see her alive. Tartaglia is still trying to assess the woman's murder when another case calls him in. A supposedly homeless man burned to death in a car isn't a man at all. He's an assembly of parts of several men. A jigsaw puzzle of parts. Just how many have already died? And how many are yet to come before the Jigsaw Man killer is caught? You won't put this one down until the final page.

The Devil's Making

By Sean Haldane, St. Martin's, 368 pages, $21.99

The Devil's Making was published last year by Stone Flower Press and managed to win the Arthur Ellis Award while at the same time being almost totally unknown to everyone but the judges. Now, in general publication from St. Martin's, we can all see that Sean Haldane, an Anglo-Irish expat who has lived in Canada and currently resides in California, is a major talent. The Devil's Making combines Canadian history, solid crime plotting and a real sense of native-Canadian social history into a stunning tale of greed, deceit and murder. Chad Hobbes, recently arrived from England, is the policeman in charge in Victoria. It's 1869 and a handful of colonists aspire to upper-class British lifestyles amid thousands of native people. When a visiting American is murdered and mutilated, the cry goes out to arrest the Tsimshian medicine man, Wiladzap. But Hobbes isn't convinced that the "Indian" is guilty. The dead man had worn many cloaks and hid many secrets. Someone in a close-knit and protective society may have killed him and assumed the Indian would pay. Beautifully plotted and written, this is a terrific debut that promises greater works to come.