Page turners

Murder and intrigue span the globe, from Byzantium to Burundi. Who's guilty? Reviewer Yvonne Zipp is on the case.

By

Murder in Byzantium, by Julia Kristeva ($29.50)

A killer is targeting members of the dubious New Pantheon sect in sunny Santa Varvara. (We're never told, exactly, what their crimes are, but even the police commissioner isn't terribly sorry they're dead.) Then a historian with a secret obsession for 11th-century writer Anna Comnena murders his mistress and vanishes. Are the two linked? Returning characters Stephanie Delacour and Police Commissioner Northrup Rilsky engage in an affair while attempting to solve Santa Varvara's latest crimes. The book seems less a detective novel than an exercise in free association, testing a reader's patience for breathless blather as Stephanie and the historian, Sebastian Chrest-Jones, rattle on about how fabulous they are. The history of the first Crusade and the life of Comnena, whom Kristeva characterizes as the first major female historian, are the highlights, But comparisons with the works of Umberto Eco and Ian McEwan are regrettable, since "Byzantium" lacks the erudition of Eco and the clarity of McEwan. Grade: C-

The Princess of Burundi, by Kjell Eriksson ($23.95)

A few days before Christmas, the mutilated body of a man is found by a jogger in Eriksson's new book, which won an award for best crime novel in his native Sweden. The victim, John Jonsson, was a welder, family man, and an expert on tropical fish. (The title comes from the name of the last fish he bought before his murder.) His death puzzles everyone in Uppsalla, none of whom would have been surprised if his ne'er-do-well brother had been the one found in the snow. Told in short chapters from the perspectives of members of Jonsson's family, the local police, and a troubled man who went to school with the victim, the tale is a grim, chilly one in which even pets aren't safe from gruesome fates. Grade: B-

The Summer Snow, by Rebecca Pawel ($23.00)

Fresh from the paranoia files: An old woman sends for the police almost every week, certain that someone is trying to kill her. Then she winds up dead, under mysterious circumstances. The old woman in this case is the aunt of Lieutenant Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon, who is transferred to Granada at the behest of his aristocratic family to deal with the matter before scandal taints their illustrious name. Pawel's new book is another delightful entry in her award-winning series, set in fascist Spain. In addition to strong characterizations and a lively sense of humor, she explores the inherent tension of a detective trying to seek the truth in a country that regularly suppresses it. Like his wife, a former communist, readers are torn between the good Tejada tries to do and the casual brutality of the regime he supports. All this, plus the most adorable toddler ever to dream of riding the rails. Grade: A-

Recommended: 'The Godfather': 10 behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the classic films
The Rainaldi Quartet, by Paul Adam ($23.95)

An Italian violinmaker turns gumshoe to avenge his lifelong friend in British writer Paul Adam's well-crafted, expertly paced 10th novel. After Tomaso Rainaldi is found murdered in his workshop, Gianni Castiglione finds himself recreating his friend's research in pursuit of one of the music world's great legends: a missing Stradivarius violin. (The police are happy to avail themselves of Gianni's expertise, since the lead detective played in a quartet with him and the dead man.) As the search travels from Venice to England, the plot mixes equal parts thriller and riddle to fulfill Gianni's solemn proclamation to the detective: "The criminals you encounter, the thugs, the thieves, the dregs of society, are paragons of virtue compared to your average violin dealer." Excepting a clichéd cemetery showdown, "Quartet" almost never hits a false note. Besides, how can one resist a novel that knows enough about classical composers to label Johannes Brahms a "cat harpooner" and advises that "whatever you are doing, no matter how busy you are, you must always find time in your day for Bach." Grade: A-

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