A brace of whodunits:

Murder's afoot in Chinatown, Venice

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"The Black Dove" Steve Hockensmith St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95


In 1893, San Francisco's Chinatown was not the place to go for a relaxing dinner of General Tso's Chicken, unless, that is, diners were willing to risk losing their own heads to the chef's hatchet.

Nor was it pleasant for the Chinese, who were constantly persecuted. It was a breeding place for crime of every possible description.

Taking that historic Chinatown -- which may have been real or fictitious -- as his starting point, Steve Hockensmith has created a quirky and original mystery series featuring two red-haired cowpokes, the brothers Otto ("Big Red" ) and Gustav ("Old Red") Amlingmeyer, who happen to be avid fans of Arthur Conan Doyle and fancy themselves as counterparts to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Otto, the younger of the two, is tall, handsome and more practical, if less insightful. Gustav, small, introverted and illiterate (Otto reads him the stories), is the great "deductifier." They have just been fired after a disastrous train wreck while they were agents of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The brothers arrive in Chinatown where they encounter Dr. Gee Woo Chan, who had lost a great deal of money in the wreck, blamed largely on the Amlingmeyer brothers. When Chen is found dead, clutching what might be a suicide note in Chinese, San Francisco police rule he killed himself. Gustav does not believe it.

Matters are complicated by a beautiful railroad detective, who may not be what she seems. Both men lust after the woman, who manages to extract these macho men from one life-threatening jam after another.

It takes quite a suspension of disbelief to accept the Amlingmeyers' adventures, but Hockensmith nicely mirrors the relationship between Holmes and Watson and their methods of deduction with his characters.

He's also is quite good at exposing the prejudices and bigotry that were perfectly acceptable a century ago.

This all makes for fast reading, a tale that is breezy and funny throughout, until it turns acrid with a decidedly unfunny and all too credible plot twist at the end.

-- By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior editor


"The Girl of His Dreams" Donna Leon Atlantic Monthly Press, $24p>

Guido Brunetti, Venice police detective, has never been in such low spirits as he is in the 17th installment of Leon's suspense series.

Nor has Leon been so cynical about the state of the world as well.

In the latest installment, what's weighing down the detective is the death of his mother, a priest with a shaky past who wants a favor and the body of an 11-year girl fished from a canal. When the autopsy reveals not only a stolen ring hidden in her vagina but an STD, Brunetti turns as sour as a lemon ice.

Even his wife Paola's lively intelligence and superb cooking fail to raise the cop's spirits.

Venice is turning as toxic as the smoke from Marghera, an industrial area, the city streets are full of stands selling cheap junk and immigrants have forced out the locals, Leon, through Brunetti, observes.

Then he catches himself, "the memory of Paola's voice ... telling him that if she wanted to listen to old women complain about how good things had been in the good old days ... she'd go and sit in the doctor's waiting room for a hour ..."

Leon, an American, uses her new book to take jabs at both the United States and Italy.

American tourists, she writes, "knew themselves to be safe only when at home in front of their own television sets" while Italians are sick of immigrants, their own lenient justice system and the culture of official corruption.

Only Brunetti and his associates at the Questura keep up the fight for honesty and justice.

In Italy, writes Leon, that justice is often denied the victim, especially when it's a child of a Gypsy family of thieves ("we call them Rom now," Brunetti is told). The details of the girl's sordid life at home coupled with the indifference of her father drive him to solve the case, although he knows no one will pay for her death -- or funeral, for that matter.

No. 17 breaks the spell of charm and sophistication that Leon has conjured in her previous works. Instead, she's sounding world-weary and despairing about Italy.

Then again, with the Berlusconi restoration, who wouldn't?

-- By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette



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