THE BAD SAMARITAN
By Robert Barnard
Scribner, 233 pp., $21
FROM POTTER'S FIELD
By Patricia Cornwell
Scribner, 412 pp., $24
By Francine Mathews
Morrow, 246 pp., $22
Foul play and then setting things right are essential elements in any murder mystery. Not only do we anticipate unfairness, but after a sharp experience of mayhem, we expect the author to provide a rectifying moral vision. Most often this happens through the agency of a law-enforcement official. In the process, this official often becomes someone we empathize with, a force for good in an evil world.
Three new books, two by masters of the genre, a third by one with the potential to become a master, will delight readers in how each official-of-the-law sets things right.
The Bad Samaritan, by Robert Barnard, is an elegant, British whodunit. The author is at the top of his form. In trademark minimalist detail the plot unfolds as if it were a chat over afternoon tea. Then, as is Barnard's forte, somewhere between cream and sugar, decorum disintegrates: ethnic exploitation, marital infidelity, financial greed, and murder sit down for tea as well.
Solving the crime is never enough for Barnard. On the surface, St. Saviour's parish is a close-knit, respectable, and ever-so-middle-class church community. When Barnard finishes with this small English village, everyone learns a hard lesson in hypocrisy. He strips the veneer of respectability from a number of its prominent citizens.
Rosemary Sheffield, the vicar's wife, has lost her faith. This initiates slanderous remarks from a matronly "pillar" of the congregation. Rosemary's counter-charge of hypocrisy remains sheathed until story's end, at which point verbal daggers rival the real one used by the murderer.
Convention, decency, and civility are shattered - mugged, as it were, not by highwaymen but by the person in the next pew. By the end of the tale, many in this idyllic countryside town need their own Samaritan. Barnard takes impish delight in standing the parable on its head.
To help sort it all out (and play the role of Samaritan), detectives Mike Oddie and Charlie Peace, mainstays to Barnard readers, are back. Their police problem lies not in finding the motive for the murder, since the victim is utterly detestable; nearly everyone has a motive for his demise. Oddie's and Peace's challenge is sorting out the identity of the murderer from a host of respectable candidates.
Barnard is having his usual fun with readers. In an interview some years ago, he revealed that he often strives to create a despicable figure ripe for murder, the better to involve (or lull, as the case may be) his reader into complicity in offing the victim.
For first-time readers of Patricia Cornwell, From Potter's Field is not the best introduction to this best-selling mystery writer. Her fans (count me one), though, will love it.
Kay Scarpetta, coroner for the State of Virginia and mistress of the morgue, is in pursuit of a serial killer. She does not know him, but he knows her and challenges her to try to catch him. He deliberately hurts people she is close to.
Much of the book takes place in New York City, below ground in the subways. The plot can be as difficult to navigate as those subways are for out-of-towners. There are, however, two major flaws in Cornwell's story.
The killer takes on proportions bigger than life. His motives are irrational and not convincingly genuine for someone as capable of outsmarting the police as he repeatedly proves to be. It is difficult to imagine someone so evil, so intelligent, and yet so reckless.
Scarpetta's indecisiveness over continuing her long-lasting affair with a married colleague also is not credible. At this stage of her life, an individual whose clinical proficiency in performing autopsies has won her high praise from the FBI just wouldn't let her personal life conflict with her professional life in such a messy way.
Death in Rough Water, by Francine Mathews, her second in a series, takes place on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts. It possesses both a nautical and a New England flavor as detective Merry Folger battles not only the physical elements of wind and wave, but more turbulent human affairs as well: the possible murder of a close family friend who dies at sea while skippering his own fishing boat and the actual murder of a childhood friend.
Folger is the daughter of the police chief. Her middle-class family has run the historic island's police force for as long as anyone can remember. Using Nantucket as a venue gives Mathews a foil to examine twin dilemmas of most small-town police forces: sexism and provincialism.
First, police work is still "men's" work. Folger must constantly prove herself to her fellow officers as well as to many townspeople. And in her own mind, she must prove herself to her father. Second, "When you're a cop on an island this small, it's always going to be people you know doing things you don't want to know about."
As the hometown girl who possesses a familiarity and neighborliness with almost everyone, ferreting out the perpetrators and their motives for committing a heinous act - the double murder of friends she knows and loves - become all the more emotionally difficult. Mathews adeptly and convincingly exploits the psychological tension within Folger, a law-enforcement official and a caring person navigating by a Yankee moral compass.