Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SUSPENSE: Leon stirs another roiling cauldron of Venetian crime

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The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs is one of Aesop's most cherished fables, a cautionary tale against greed. If this was the allusion that American-born but longtime Venetian resident Donna Leon intended to draw with the title of her latest Guido Brunetti case, The Golden Egg (Atlantic Monthly, 256 pages, $21), she nailed it.

Unfettered greed is indisputably the base ingredient in a roiling cauldron of secrecy, blackmail, family dissolution and unthinkable abuse that is deciphered by Leon's erudite police commissario after the apparent suicide of a mentally handicapped man.

Through the well-honed sensibilities of her longtime protagonist, Leon is unfailingly insightful about her crumbling adopted city -- its political corruption and public-service chaos, the foibles and stubborn survival skills of its canny inhabitants, and the threatened but enduring beauty of it legacy.

There is no such thing as a bad Donna Leon novel. There is only exemplary and magnificent. For its unmatched poignancy alone, this one ranks magnificent.

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Sequels are tough. Authors are expected to redeem the promise of the first book in a fledgling series, surpassing or at least matching its strengths and appeal.

The Placebo Effect, by David Rotenberg, held just such promise last year, introducing human truth-detector Decker Roberts -- like Rotenberg, a Toronto acting coach and director, but one who takes on lucrative interrogation assignments for corporate and other clients.

A Murder of Crows (Touchstone, 336 pages, $28) follows the basic storylines and characters: Decker's search for his estranged son Seth, who also possesses his truth-sensing gift but is dying of bladder cancer; Crazy Eddie, Decker's computer-whiz agent, who is trying to reunite with his daughter; and Yslan Hicks, assigned to track gifted folks like Decker for the National Security Agency.

But the nub here is a bombing at an exclusive U.S. college that vaporizes several hundred of the nation's best scientific minds. Decker is forcibly recruited by Hicks to work the investigation with another 'synaesthete', a childlike woman who can recite the last thoughts of dead people.

For the reader, there's no mystery here -- it's clear from the get-go who the culprits are. So, the book devolves into a sort of ersatz cop procedural that, unfortunately, gets carried away with its own spookiness.

While there's still hope for redemption in his trilogy's final instalment, Rotenberg hasn't made his task any easier with this one.

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The Black Ace, by G.B. Joyce (Penguin, 368 pages, $22): The apparent suicide of a former teammate draws down-but-not-out L.A. hockey scout, reluctant investigator and former NHLer Brad Shade to Swift Current, Sask., with his even-more-reluctant sidekick, Chief. Hockey fan or not, this funny, smart and briskly-paced tale of small-town villainy by Toronto sportswriter Joyce will grab you.

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Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka (Henry Holt, 368 pages, $31): Everyone thinks the world really is only 5,800 years old until the discovery of strange bones in Indonesia threatens to upend scientific and religious orthodoxy. That pits genetic anthropologist Paul Carlsson against a phalanx of conspirators in a race to reveal or suppress the truth in this science-laden alternative-reality thriller from the Crichton playbook. Great fun.

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The Andalucian Friend, by Alexander Soderberg (Knopf, 464 pages, $30): A comely widowed nurse becomes entangled with a Spanish drug lord, rival gangsters and crooked cops in this door-stopper debut by the newest Swedish contender for Stieg Larsson's crown. But with its convoluted, fantastic plot-lines, over-the-top violence and pinball game of slimly developed characters, this one simply collapses under its own weight.

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 13, 2013 J9

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