The Los Angeles of James Ellroy’s latest historical thriller, THIS STORM (Knopf, $29.95), is the kind of place where rats as big as cats fearlessly scoot across the front porch, where lovers rendezvous in welcoming Tijuana, anonymous among the “child-beggar swarms” and “cat-meat taco vendors,” and where sentiments of pure, undiluted venom (“Hate, hate, hate. Kill, kill, kill”) express the prevailing state of race relations. We’re talking about the Los Angeles of January 1942, when a New Year’s Eve broadcast by Father Charles Coughlin laments that his war-battered listeners must stand shoulder to shoulder with the “rape-happy Russian Reds” in resistance to “the more sincerely simpatico Nazis.”
In such a soul-crushing environment, a simple murder comes as a relief. Or so thinks Dudley Smith, a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, currently working for Army intelligence and devising all kinds of war-profiteering hustles on the side. Torrential rainstorms have unearthed a corpse, washed up in its very own pine box on a par-3 golf course — a “long-term decomp,” in cop parlance, meaning the remains are sans flesh and all bones. By official guesstimate, man and box were burned in a fire, circa 1933. But the repercussions of the case will play out over the next several months. (“There was no better time to howl and throw parties.”)
For readers who keep track of these things, “This Storm” is the second volume, after “Perfidia,” of Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet. (For my money, the most notable novels in his great saga are “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A. Confidential,” the first and third books of The L.A. Quartet. But honestly, you can pick up the story anywhere.) Here the characters in those previous novels are younger and dangerously reckless. And this time we take a long look at Hideo Ashida, “crack forensic chemist and sly sleuth,” who barely escapes internment by covering up a bookie racket: “Great shame undermines his great luck.” Until it runs out, his luck is also ours: Of all the flawed characters caught up in the swirl of this epic novel, he’s the guy with the most heart.
If you’re going to be bludgeoned to death with a bottle of wine, it might as well be a vintage with a certain cachet. In Anthony Horowitz’s new mystery, THE SENTENCE IS DEATH (Harper, $27.99), a celebrity divorce lawyer named Richard Pryce is murdered with a 1982 bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild, which is not too shabby. Classier still is the metafictional plot construction, which allows Horowitz-the-author to play Horowitz-the-character in his own novel. “I like to be in control of my books,” he says, explaining why he has positioned himself as the lead detective’s sidekick.
The victim wasn’t short of enemies. In one unseemly public display, a pretentious feminist author poured a glass of wine over his head and thus positioned herself as a suspect. But as the detective, Daniel Hawthorne, bluntly notes after the author has shared his own theories, “It was all too bloody obvious, mate.”
Not having aged in the past 20 years, Aimée Leduc, the heroine of MURDER IN BEL-AIR (Soho Crime, $27.95) and other Parisian mysteries by Cara Black, is quite capable of being the mother of a darling, almost-1-year-old child named Chloé. To be sure, time goes slowly in this captivating series and it’s still only 1999. Aimée is still wearing high-fashion vintage clothing and scooting around on her pink Vespa while solving computer security breaches for Leduc Detective — and the odd murder case for her own satisfaction.
Here Aimée’s in Paris’s 12th Arrondissement, not for the opera or for a stroll in the Bois de Vincennes, but to solve the murder of a homeless old woman. Aimée is also in search of her unpredictable American mother, Sydney, who has disappeared after failing to pick up Chloé from her playgroup in Bel-Air.
Aimée doesn’t need to pack heat on these adventures; the stiletto heels of her Louboutin ankle boots are weapon enough. But something more lethal is called for when Sydney’s secretive work as a former C.I.A. operative comes to light, threatening not only Sydney and her professional contacts but also her family, including (gasp!) baby Chloé.
Did Martin Walker really kill off that nice American art history student in THE BODY IN THE CASTLE WELL (Knopf, $25.95)? Yes, he did, which is very daring, considering that this is one of his charming mysteries set in the beautiful Périgord region of France and featuring his amiable sleuth, Bruno Courrèges. Nice young women like Claudia Muller are rarely bumped off in nice country mysteries with nice local detectives, especially not detectives who take their horses and their truffle hounds into the woods for the sheer joy of it.
But Walker knows exactly what he’s doing in this series, which artfully seasons its plots with regional lore about the sport of falconry and with lessons in French history, particularly the World War II resistance — all while gently teasing the locals for indulging in “the French love of ceremony and dressing up.”
Marilyn Stasio has covered crime fiction for the Book Review since 1988. Her column appears twice a month.
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