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review: crime fiction

Ben Clarkson

Brenner And God

By Wolf Haas, translated by Annie Janusch, Melville House, 224 pages, $14.95

"My grandmother always used to say to me when you die, they're gonna give that mouth of yours its own funeral."

That opening line introduces the narrator of this superb translation of one of Austria's finest crime novels. As he/she relates the adventures of ex-Inspector Brenner, late of the police, now a chauffeur for a billionaire land developer, the pace is gentle, the humour subtle, the ideas fresh. In short, we get a series that has elements of the delightful Fred Vargas's Inspector Adamsberg, but really owes more to the elegant German author H.H. Kirst, who chronicled the idiocies of total war in his Gunner Asch series and climaxed his career with the brilliant Night Of The Generals. Nothing is rushed as the story begins with a kidnapping and ends with murder.

We first encounter Brenner as chauffeur to the Kressdorf family. Pa is the Munich developer. Ma is a well-known (and much maligned) doctor who operates a controversial birth control clinic in Vienna. Brenner, or Herr Simon as the Kressdorfs prefer, drives their two-year-old daughter Helena, from one parent to another, or to their mutual home in Kitzbuhel. The job is easy. Brenner likes the baby. He has a roof, a salary, benefits. One day, while he's buying helena a chcolate bar at a gas station, she vanishes. Brenner is summarily sacked. The real police will search for Helena.

Haas never loses the thread of investigation, even as he introduces off-beat characters and a very complex plot. This 2009 work predates the Euro crash so Haas's observations of the German plutocracy, smugly ensconced in their BMWs, is essential to the story. The Developer is plowing under a famous park to build MegaLand, a combination shopping mall, entertainment hub and living space. Oh, and Brenner does find God. This is the first of the Brenner novels in English. We can only hope for more, soon.

The Mastersinger fom Minsk

By Morley Torgov, Dundurn, 264 pages, $17.99

The second Hermann Preiss novel by Morley Torgov, set in 19th-century Munich, is even better than the first. Inspector Priess is the man to whom all crimes musical come. Earlier, it was a conflict with composer Robert Schumann. Here, Torgov/Priess encounter the genius of the age, Richard Wagner, on the march to the 1868 premier of his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

I am a devoted, but not fanatical Wagnerite and I think Torgov's loudmouthed, demanding, entitled, screeching lecher may just be the real thing. In any event, it makes for a great story. The Master receives an anonymous note threatening disaster as the opening approaches. When the second tenor is murdered, it appears that sabotage is only the beginning. Then a beautiful pregnant woman claims Wagner as the father of her child (he's already carrying on an affair with the wife of his conductor) and there are strange rustlings around the heldentenor selected to sing Walther. Just who is the mysterious Meistersinger from Minsk?

Available Dark

By Elizabeth Hand, St. Martin's, 246 pages, $27.50

This sequel to Generation Loss brings back photographer/punk rock aficionado Cass Neary and the second book is better than the first. Neary is hired to vet a group of photographs from Helsinki. The photos disappear and the photographer is dead. Just why and how Neary ends up in Iceland, in Reykjavik, is part of the plot that shouldn't be revealed. But Iceland it is in a hair-raising novel of psychological suspense. This is a series I hope will continue.

The Pleasures Of Men

By Kate Williams, HarperCollins, 401 pages, $19.99

It's London, 1840. Victoria has just ascended the throne and England is ruling an Empire. But on the streets, a vicious serial killer dubbed the Man of Crows is murdering women, cutting open their torsos, and stuffing their hair in their mouths to resemble beaks. There are no clues.

At her uncle's home in Spitalfields, 19-year-old Catherine Sorgeiul lives a quiet and sheltered life. The Man of Crows murders pique her interests, leading her to read more and more about the grisly crimes. As her knowledge increases, so does her imaginary pursuit of the killer and Catherine comes to believe she can actually communicate with the killer and his victims.

This is a terrific novel about obsession and Victorian inner life. Williams, a British academic and biographer, really knows her history and how to frame it to make the story stand out. This is her first novel, but not, I hope, her last.

Spoiled Rotten

By Mary Jackman, Dundurn, 232 pages, $11.95

This is a great little weekend book for the cottage. Set in downtown Toronto and full of bits of Queen Street lore, it's a hoot. Jackman, one of the founders of the Peter Pan Restaurant (one of Queen St.'s first must-go locations) has also taught at George Brown and penned a documentary on star chef Susur Lee. Her detective, restaurateur Liz Walker, seems a bit familiar. The crime, the death of a meat supplier in Kensington Market, begins a neat puzzle for those who like their crime pink but not bloody. Bon appétit!

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