Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SUSPENSE: Connelly back in fine form with twisty tale

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In the spirit of the season, a spring clearout of hits and misses from a bumper crop of March and April whodunits:

HITS

Beyond the generally favourable reviews, last month's screen adaption of The Lincoln Lawyer has restored some of the critical sheen to both Matthew McConaughey (as mobile defence lawyer Mickey Haller) and backsliding L.A. chart-topper Michael Connelly.

No matter that supplying a fourth Haller novel as a movie tie-in may have cranked up Connelly's mojo in The Fifth Witness (Little, Brown, 448 pages, $30). This twisty, against-all-odds courtroom tale of a woman accused of murdering a bank executive over a home foreclosure offers a first-person intimacy and plot sophistication lacking in his recent offerings.

While he's yet to rediscover the gritty depth and L.A.-as-character noir of his earlier Harry Bosch sagas, Witness is Connelly's best since 2006's Echo Park.

***

Somehow, the maybe-murder of a pregnant former tennis star and the disappearance of her rock-star husband are linked to the unwelcome sighting of celeb agent Myron Bolitar's nasty, drugged-up sister-in-law, and the continued absence of his estranged brother. Got that?

Well, mix in a parental heart attack, a teenage nephew he's never met, his partner's divorce and a Skype romance, and there's no doubt that Live Wire (Dutton, 384 pages, $33), the 10th Bolitar outing for New Jersey chart-topper Harlan Coben, is intended as a pivotal, all-in-the-family exercise.

Coben has "breezy and engaging" down pat, and Myron (with the juice of lethal, super-rich sidekick Win) is a guilty pleasure.

Field Gray, by Philip Kerr (Putnam, 448 pages, $34): Kerr's seventh Bernie Gunther period-piece finds the former Berlin cop, SS conscript, Soviet POW and Cuban emigré now a harried pawn in post-war machinations at the dawn of a new, colder European faceoff.

While it smacks of tying up loose ends from previous books, and is unaided by convoluted time-shifting and political triteness (really, Bernie abhors smug, hypocritical Americans and duplicitous Frenchies more than genocidal East German commies?), Kerr's everyman take on evil and expediency is without peer.

Ashes of the Earth, by Eliot Pattison (Counterpoint, 400 pages, $29): A nuanced and richly allegorical tale of collective and personal recovery in a post-apocalyptic Great Lakes survivor colony rife with resurgent official corruption. While its purely whodunit aspects occasionally flounder in obscurity and clutter, a battered castaway's search for the truth behind the murder of the colony's eminence grise holds an intimate, mystical power.

The Priest's Graveyard, by Ted Dekker (Center Street, 368 pages, $28): "What's the opposite of judging?" asks the brainwashed sex slave. "Grace," replies the vigilante killer-priest. "And love."

At first blush, this dark psycho-thriller has little going for it, least its unsubtle style and gruesome revenge scenario. Yet, as redemption theatre, starring two horribly damaged souls, it has a kind of twisted beauty.

MISSES

Fall from Grace, by Wayne Arthurson (Forge, 320 pages, $30): Were it not for the clunky dialogue, see-through plot and hackneyed newsroom/cop scenarios, the notion of a down-and-almost-out Edmonton reporter haunted by a series of native-prostitute murders could nicely leverage its built-in Prairie resonance. Were it not.

The King of Diamonds, by Simon Tolkien (Minotaur, 336 pages, $29): Would that Simon had inherited a smidgen of his illustrious grandfather's penchant for arch prose and masterful storytelling. Instead, he feels compelled to add superfluous dross to Holocaust genocide with a Brit policier about war criminals, stolen diamonds and murder, circa 1960. Tediously predictable, and just a tad offensive.

Altar of Bones, by Philip Carter (Gallery, 464 pages, $29): Slithering from the Anonymity Breeds Contempt Department, "Carter is a pseudonym for an internationally renowned author" and "experienced espionage novelist." So sayeth his or her publisher.

With this relentlessly dreadful putsch into Dan Brown's flimsy territory -- a cartoonish fountain-of-youth chase caper and contender for the Bad Sex Award -- we'd say stick with the spy stuff. If we knew it were any better.

Satori, by Don Winslow (Knopf, 512 pages, $30): It would be tempting to defend this raggedy Asian thriller as minimally better than last year's execrable Savages, a faux-literary drugs-and-dipshits snorefest that managed to give L.A. a bad name.

But, as it purports (with unconscionable official sanction) to prequel the derring-do of Nicholas Hel, iconic assassin of the classic 1979 spy novel Shibumi by the late, pseudonymous Trevanian (Rodney Whitaker) ... let's just forget it ever saw print.

Night Vision, by Randy Wayne White (Putnam, 368 pages, $33): Mix alligators, a screaming-to-be-retired 18th-instalment hero and his tiresome sidekick, nasty drug-dealers and a kidnapped Guatemalan kid with Joan of Arc delusions and you have ... another Doc Ford million-seller. Root for the alligators.

John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2011 J14

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