Toronto author David Rotenberg switches mystery venues from modern China to Hogtown and a racetrack of U.S. cities for his sixth novel, The Placebo Effect (Touchstone, 352 pages, $30), and it's a corker -- a moody, speculative-fiction thriller that should power his planned three-part trilogy into the stratosphere.
In fact, a hypersensitive rarefied zone is exactly where Decker Roberts seems to go when corporate clients hire him (for cash, and very much on the QT) as a modern-day truthsayer -- "sensing a stream of cool, clear air above him ... something heavy in his right hand and a coldness." Decker is a synaesthete, someone whose awareness mixes two or more senses (a documented condition often linked to head injuries), allowing him to detect lies infallibly.
It's a murky, clandestine world where exposure means threat -- from a pharmaceutical kingpin and his murderous henchman and, more subtly, from a comely Washington spook trying to protect (and use) such "special talents."
It's this one-step-removed scenario, and a full-blooded, under-the-radar cast fronted by the harried and haunted Decker, that elevate this yarn from a run-of-the-mill chase novel to a smart, intriguing ride that serves Rotenberg -- and his readers -- quite well.
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The two previous instalments of Howard Shrier's Jonah Geller PI series won back-to-back Arthur Ellis awards for best Canadian crime novel. No doubt he's hoping for the trifecta, but, sadly, Boston Cream (Vintage, 336 pages, $20) is a nag that just won't run.
It's not that the storyline is without possibilities: probing the disappearance of a young Canadian doctor from a Boston hospital, Geller and his posse (lesbian partner, former hitman pal) tackle a murderous organ-transplant operation that links Irish mobsters, a glory-seeking rabbi, a corrupt surgeon and a congressman trying to save his sick wife.
Despite lots of action, a nasty kidnapping and the obligatory and (very) extended shootout finale, Shrier's notion of character development is lumbered with so much hand-wringing and soppy sentimentalism that the exercise comes off as wimpy soap-opera, with Geller as tough guy lite.
Sadly, it's a book that just doesn't know what it wants to be.
Defending Jacob, by William Landay (Delacorte, 432 pages, $31): The secrets, lies, guilt and betrayals that on-leave assistant DA Andy Barber uncovers as he defends his 14-year-old son in the murder of a classmate fuel this wrenching portrait of a shattered Massachusetts family. More than a first-rate courtroom drama, it's a close-to-the-bone, shudder-inducing trauma study with a job-dropping, triple-whammy finale.
Last Dance, by David Russell (RendezVous, 352 pages, $18): Legal wrangling over gay kids attending school proms may seem a little old-hat in a time of same-sex marriage, but Coquitlam, B.C., author Russell manages a fresh, engaging spin. Winston Patrick, former lawyer turned high school teacher, unleashes a hate- and guilt-driven furor when his defence of a gay student's rights ends in murder. The first-person narrative, realistic dialogue and accessible cast create an engaging intimacy to this fast-paced social commentary.
Tumblin' Dice, by John McFetridge (ECW, 288 pages, $27): The Toronto author persists at his downer cops-and-bikers series with a slim, listless tale of Harlequin romance and gang warfare at an Indian casino. With its scuzzy, off-putting baddies, perfunctory cop scenes and annoying clutter of '80s musical references, this one is just much ado about not very much.
Available Dark, by Elizabeth Hand (Minotaur, 256 pages, $28): Cass Neary, former avant-garde photog and full-time junkie, heads an aging and aimless underclass cast in this nihilist fusion of Scando death-metal, cadaver "art" and paganist murder in gloomy Helsinki and gloomier Reykjavik. The tatted-up Mainer strives mightily at European edginess, but it just comes off tawdry, tasteless and trivial.
John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.