Murder, Murder Everywhere: the Woods, the Hospital, the Market Square

Bill Smith and Lydia Chin, sleuthing partners in a series of smart, sophisticated mysteries by S. J. Rozan, find themselves working for a most unusual client in THE ART OF VIOLENCE (Pegasus Crime, 275 pp., $25.95). Sam Tabor, a painter and a convicted murderer to boot, owes his early prison release to influential members of the art scene. “They see the violence in the work, they think it’s also in him, and they adore it,” the artist’s brother says. But while his supporters are convinced of his innocence (or willing to overlook his guilt for the sake of his edgy art), Sam suspects that he may indeed be murdering women while he’s in a fugue state. “I get stressed, I get drunk, I kill women. Is that so hard to understand?” Can Bill and Lydia confirm Sam’s fears before more people die?

We’re talking about the rarefied New York art world here — artists, pallid wannabes and the various collectors, critics, curators and connoisseurs who feast off their talent. Rozan is in her element here. Her portrait sketches are as swift and deadly as Bill’s views on Sam’s paintings. (“They’re hard to be with,” he reckons. “They may be great, but you want to get away.”)

Swanning around SoHo or the Whitney with the chic art crowd reminded me of a time when New York mysteries regularly gave readers the chance to mingle with the smart set in their natural habitat. No mean streets in those quarters; just swanky restaurants, private clubs and posh East Side townhouses where the filthy rich busied themselves murdering their nearest and dearest, haggling over their wills and cutting checks for detectives like Nero Wolfe and Philo Vance. Bill and Lydia aren’t quite in their league, but it’s nice to have them around.

As Americans, we often lift our weary eyes to Scandinavia and weep hot tears of health care envy. The Danish author Katrine Engberg tries to disabuse us of that jealousy in THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE (Scout Press, 346 pp., $28). Set in the coronary unit of a Copenhagen hospital, the nasty tale — capably translated by Tara Chace — features a nurse on an ungodly “palliative” mission to eliminate the elderly before they gum up the pristine national health care works. Surely her rationale was never taught in school: “Is there anything,” she thought, “more irrelevant in this world than grumpy old men?”

The series investigator Jeppe Korner (minus his partner, Anette Werner, who is on maternity leave) is already busy puzzling over the macabre death of a woman whose naked, exsanguinated body is found floating in a fountain in the middle of Old Market Square. But the hospital case trumps that murder because it taps into the fear of every civilized nation that its lauded health care system might be leaning toward inhumane end-of-days medical practices. The philosophical issues are worth debating, but can’t distract from the sheer horror of imagining oneself at the mercy of a medical system that considers its most vulnerable citizens as so much trash to be hauled off to the dump.

Courtroom dramas — aren’t they all alike? Pretty much, except when they’re completely original. That’s an honest reaction to TAKE IT BACK (St. Martin’s, 294 pp., $27.99), a shocking legal thriller by Kia Abdullah that goes where few legal thrillers have gone before — at least, not in my experience. The attorney Zara Kaleel is what any proud parent would call “a smart girl” and “a good Muslim.”

Zara makes it to the top of London’s legal profession, earning six figures and driving a fancy car. But “all her life she was told that if she worked hard and treated people well, she’d get there. No one told her that when she got there, there’d be no there there.” So she ditches her prestigious job for one at a sexual assault referral center. There she becomes the legal champion of clients like Jodie Wolfe, a 16-year-old girl with severe facial deformities who was brutalized by four teenage boys — the children of decent, hard-working immigrant families. The prejudices that emerge in this court case are downright incendiary, exposing the deep fault line when issues of race and sex collide. Stunning as it is, the ending doesn’t begin to address the problems of being Other in a closed society.

Life is pure misery for the women and children in HARD TIMES (Bronzeville Books, 184 pp., paper, $12.99), a bone-cracking, Depression-era yarn set in the backwoods of East Texas. Even someone like Amelia — smart enough to win school prizes and cunning enough to carry a machete — gets caught up in the brutal cycle of life for women in these parts. (“Just try to stay out of the way,” her mother advises her when her father forces her to marry Arnold Critchin, who assaulted her on their first date.) When Arnold’s moonshine business lands him in jail, Amelia is left to fend for their four children and her husband’s pack of vicious dogs.

The novel veers straight into thriller territory when Lucious Tremaine, a fugitive from Louisiana, stumbles into this treacherous backwater and Amelia becomes his only hope of eluding the savage locals.

Dogs, husbands, killer outlaws — we know which beasts we’re rooting for.

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