Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SUSPENSE: Castes confound Indian detective

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Foreign climes have long provided fodder for memorable crime fighters and exotic mysteries, and the quirky exploits of New Delhi's "most private investigator," Vish Puri, can safely be added to that roll.

Not that "Chubby," as he's affectionately called by his endlessly forebearing wife, is exactly India's Sam Spade. Canny and tenacious, he's also a dithery, superstitious fuddy-duddy whose self-importance is only exceeded by his prodigious appetite -- so much so that author Tarquin Hall provides several favoured recipes and a glossary of Indian terms peppered with foodie fare.

Protective of his own privileges under India's ancient caste system and dubious of the wealth hierarchy gradually supplanting it, Puri's exploits routinely confront him with the vast inequities and political corruption of both. So, in his fourth outing, The Case of the Love Commandos (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26), he reluctantly helps opponents of arranged caste marriages when a low-born would-be groom is kidnapped, and his girlfriend's rich father is charged with his mother's murder.

Still, our conflicted Indian everyman solves the convoluted case, one that Hall, a British journalist living in Delhi, again imbues with great good humour and keen social observation.

-- -- --

Alen Mattich's debut, 2012's Zagreb Cowboy, introduced a novel character in a uniquely explosive setting -- Yugoslav secret policeman Mark della Torre, a lawyer who investigates extrajudicial killings by his own agency on the eve of Croatia's 1991-95 war of independence.

Della Torre is back in a stellar sequel, Killing Pilgrim (Spiderline, 336 pages, $20), caught up in a CIA bid to take out a fabled and prolific Yugoslav assassin responsible for the murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme.

It's political intrigue of the deliciously murky sort as Della Torre dodges an American Mata Hari, Serbian militia and Croatian nationalists (including a Croat-Canadian pizza magnate) with a blend of hapless resolve and quirky, fatalistic humour. Highly recommended.

-- -- --

Let's give credit where it's due: Jeffery Deaver didn't have to do this one. A perennial bestseller with his Lincoln Rhyme forensic series and superior standalone mysteries, he didn't need to stretch.

So, all props to the inspiration behind The October List (Grand Central, 320 pages, $29), a 30-hour tale of kidnapping and extortion told in reverse, from its murky climax to its "ah-hah" beginning. It's a clever premise, painstakingly executed with all of Deaver's signature clue-ridden twists and feints.

It's just that it doesn't work, forcing even the most assiduous reader to flip back and forth to grasp a modicum of coherence. Ultimately, it manifests as a manipulative and contrived experiment that frustrates rather than entertains or enlightens.

Short strokes

Up in Smoke, by Ross Pennie (ECW Press, 344 pages, $25): The former Ontario infectious-disease specialist's third medical mystery links the outbreak of a fatal liver ailment to lucrative First Nations cigarette smuggling, with a murderous cover-up as the chaser. A brave foray into a political minefield for both Pennie and his hero, public-health officer Zol Szabo.

Blood on a Saint, by Anne Emery (ECW Press, 336 pages, $25): Unorthodox Halifax priest Father Brennan Burke and flinty lawyer Monty Collins return for a seventh outing when a repulsive talk-show host is charged with the murder of a young woman near a saintly statue where visions of the Virgin Mary are claimed. A workmanlike whodunit whose soft humour and simple poignancy overcome patches of wooden, editworthy prose.

Blowback, by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett (Blue Rider, 336 pages,$29): Undercover CIA operative Vanessa Pierson breaks a lot of rules chasing a Chechen assassin in the pay of a shadowy arms merchant stoking Iran's nuclear aspirations. A solid spy-thriller debut by the ex-CIA agent famously outed by the Bush White House, aided by forensic crime writer Lovett.

Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A1

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