3 mysteries, all tantalizing

Book reviews: "Drawing Conclusions," by Donna Leon. Atlantic Monthly, $24. "Live Wire," by Harlan Coben. Dutton, $27.95. "Fall From Grace," by Wayne Arthurson. Forge, $25.99.

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"Drawing Conclusions," by Donna Leon. Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.

In the 18th installment in Donna Leon's irresistible series featuring the intrepid Venetian police Commmissario Guido Brunetti, a young translator returns from vacation to discover that her elderly neighbor is dead, apparently of a heart attack, but with some suspicious blood and bruises.

As in every Brunetti novel, the plot is engaging and cleverly constructed to mislead the reader just enough to accommodate some strategic surprises.

Here, for example, we are never sure until the end whether Signora Altavilla's death was in fact a murder. And we can be sure that -- truer to real life than most crime fiction -- not every guilty party will be punished and not every act of goodness will be rewarded.

Brunetti has a remarkably happy home life with his wife Paola, a professor of English who specializes in Henry James, and their two teenage children.

His work, however is continually being impeded by ignorant and corrupt superiors, but aided by the wonderful Elettra Zonzi, a police expert in computer hacking who is always willing to bend the law to acquire private information.

Brunetti himself, a non-believer, is nonetheless highly moralistic:

"He knew the rules, but he found himself bogged down in the specifics of what happened to people ... not necessarily in accord with the rules."

In the present story, conventional morality is twice turned on its head in the work of a do-gooder's organization, "Alba Libera," intended to aid abused women and in the actions of a sleazy old man with a history of being on the wrong side of the law.

Dominating all of this is Venice, Ms. Leon's adopted home and the place she obviously loves as much as her fictitious sleuth. In her colorful prose, the city and its inhabitants come to life in a way no nonfiction travelog could hope to duplicate.

"Live Wire," by Harlan Coben. Dutton, $27.95.

Harlan Coben's crime novels with New York private detective Myron Bolitar can be painfully gruesome and violent. They can also be painfully funny.

Mr. Coben spares his reader no emotional extreme, and the violence and humor in "Live Wire" are there in about equal measure. Here, however, there is another dimension -- an unexpected sentimentality -- and Myron is forced to examine his checkered family relationships in a new light.

"Live Wire" is less violent than the earlier installments, but it is also far more pretentious. It begins in medias res with Myron's father close to death in the hospital, then proceeds with the actions of the intervening week.

That week includes a fast-moving action tale that is the meat of the novel, but it is overlaid with a lot of sappy drivel about Myron's childhood relationship with his younger brother.

There's a murder in the course of the story, also new information about an earlier murder that was covered up by buying off the victim's family. There's also the comforting presence of Myron's playboy sidekick Windsor "Win" Horne Lockwood III, who can accomplish just about anything he wants by means of cleverness or cash. He also has a mini-harem of two Asian stewardesses named Yu and Mee, which gives the author leeway to insert sexually oriented puns that are too sophomoric to repeat here.

The actual action tale is pretty good, and for the most part the book is a fast read, if you can cut through Psych 101 nonsense and sugary cuteness that impede the real progress of the narrative.

"Fall From Grace," by Wayne Arthurson. Forge, $25.99.

Two seminal events occur in the early chapters of Wayne Arthurson's latest:

The body of a native American prostitute is found near downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; and the central character, Leo Desroches, robs a bank -- unaided and in broad daylight -- and gets away with it.

Like the author, Desroches is the son of Cree and French-Canadian parents. A crime reporter for Edmonton's leading daily newspaper, he is fighting a gambling addiction that has damaged his career and lost him his family. Robbing the occasional bank has become, for the moment at least, a successful substitute for his gambling.

When Desroches learns that the local police are giving low priority to the murder of a non-white woman from a "high risk" lifestyle, he begins a series of investigative stories that unearth the killings of other native Canadians in Alberta in recent years.

The police, however, refuse to admit the possibility of a serial killer, ostensibly so as not to alarm the public or diminish faith in the department. Affronted by prejudice against his fellow Native American, Desroches goes it on his own, with the approval of his editors, only to experience police complicity in the cover up and vindictive acts of violence toward himself.

Mr. Arthurson has constructed a complex and quite original plot with an intriguing kicker at the end. Along the way he can be preachy about issues of aboriginal identity, addiction, journalistic ethics, parental responsibility and the various aspects of self-discovery that his protagonists go through.

It cannot be denied, however, that the reader learns as much as Desroches about all of the above. Some of the author's sidetracks can be tedious but there are also passages of vivid enlightenment, notably a description of a tribal rite of initiation known as the "sweat."

Even when Mr. Arthurson gets carried away in extraneous elements, or when he spends too much time on a gruesome attack, the writing is never less than compelling, and the resolution not at all what we might have expected.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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