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book review

Umbrella Man

By Peggy Blair, Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $22

Peggy Blair's Inspector Ramirez series gets better with every book. An Ottawa lawyer, Blair has a real knack for using her Havana setting, with its eccentricities born of necessity, as both a charming backdrop and a real guide to plot lines. This time out, Ramirez begins with a confrontation with Mama Loa. The witch doctor says people in the sky are going to die. Ramirez isn't convinced. There hasn't been a murder in Havana in weeks and who cares about clouds in the sky? When the prophecy kicks in (expertly done) there's not just one, but several connected killings and yes, the sky is there, too. But this is no local curse or a shot of voodoo. This is plain old-fashioned KGB-CIA hit man-style killing. That makes it political, not personal, and Ramirez knows he's on borrowed time.

Charcoal Joe

By Walter Mosley, Doubleday, 306 pages, $35.95

Walter Mosley has written more than 50 books and a play – everything from science fiction to a novel about jazz. I've read most of his work, but not all of it and, to me, the Easy Rawlins novels are the best. Easy gets older but he's always still Easy. In Charcoal Joe, it's 1968, Easy and his pal have started a real investigation office and he's thinking of marriage and children. Readers know that when Easy's easy, Mouse is going to show up and so he does, with a case to jam all Easy's plans. Charcoal Joe is an old man whose son has done well – top of his class at Stanford, a physicist no less, a great career ahead. Now he's in jail, charged with the murder of a white man in Redondo Beach, Calif., and the police aren't looking for another suspect. Easy heads out on a trail that may derail all his carefully laid plans. One of the best in a superb series.


By Paul Doiron, Minotaur, 306 pages, $36.99

Paul Doiron is emerging as one of the new generation of American crime authors with six good books and an Edgar nomination to his credit. This is the seventh novel featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch and it's the best of a fine series. Widowmaker is a ski hill, named for its speed and its tendency to kill. In a region dependent on tourism, it's not the first choice for even the best skiers, but Bowditch's dead and devious father lived and worked there. When a woman arrives at his home, asking for help for her son – a convicted sex offender who may be Mike's half-brother – Bowditch knows he's going to have to go to Widowmaker and uncover unpleasant bits of his own past, along with ugly issues in the present. Doiron's love for the Maine landscape and his knowledge of the duties and expectations of game wardens makes this series even more fascinating to outsider readers.

Before The Fall

By Noah Hawley, Grand Central, 392 pages, $31.50

There are so many good threads in this terrific psychological thriller that it's difficult to isolate the plot line. Eleven people board a private jet for a routine flight from Martha's Vineyard to Long Island. Eighteen minutes into the flight, it crashes. There are two survivors, a small boy and an artist who was a guest on-board. What happened before and what happens next is the story. The dead are a mixed lot: a fabulously rich media mogul with friends in the White House; his wife and daughter; another mogul about to be indicted for fraud; his wife; a bodyguard; two pilots; the flight attendant. Was it terrorism? An accident? Meanwhile, the "hero" who saved the child is a media sensation and an egocentric star anchorman has him in his sights. Hawley, the multi-award-winning showrunner for Fargo, cleverly weaves his story with a masterful hand, bouncing from character to character, into the past and back to the present, dropping clues and cliffhangers as he goes. A perfect weekend getaway book, Before the Fall is not to be missed.

The Waters Of Eternal Youth

By Donna Leon, Atlantic Monthly, 292 pages, $36.95

The latest entry in one of the best long-running series in mystery fiction is just as good as one expects. Once again, the elegant and cynical Commissario Guido Brunetti goes on a crusade to solve a crime. This time, the victim is a 15-year old girl, pulled from a canal by an alcoholic passerby. The erstwhile hero claimed he saw someone toss the girl into the canal but the next day, sober, he can't recall a thing. The girl grows up, but brain-damaged, she regresses to the age of about seven. Although sweet, happy and cared for, the people who love her know that a large part of her life ended in that canal, and after 15 years, Brunetti is asked to see what, if anything, is to be discovered. Opening an old case with no witnesses and no evidence is no mean feat, even for a fictional detective. Brunetti has his ways, but he also has to deal with the vagaries of the Italian justice system and, of course, his usual enemies, Vice-Questore Patta and his henchman, Lieutenant Scarpa. The ever-clever Signorina Elletra is, as always, his finest ally. This series is long in the tooth but it's still superb, with its wonderful evocation of Venice's streets and piazzas, food, and the wonderful moods of an old, old world confronting a very new one.

City Of Jackals

By Parker Bilal, Bloomsbury, 464 pages, $32

Cairo, 2005. All the elements of the disasters to come are there. Mubarak is re-elected with a spurious supermajority, corruption and the police are thriving, the people are not. Makana, a private investigator, is asked to find a missing boy, the son of a couple who own a restaurant. Mourad Hafiz doesn't seem to be the type to drop his studies, but politics, as Makana knows, can lure the young. But, as Makana searches, he finds himself engaged in the tribal issues of young men from South Sudan, and soon he's caught in a political storm that explodes in ethnic murder. Parker Bilal is the pseudonym for Jamal Mahjoub, born in London, raised in Sudan, now living in Spain. This is the fifth novel in his crime series featuring Makana and the first one I've seen. I found it absolutely riveting and am now waiting to see if Bloomsbury publishes any more.