Book roundup

Several murders, family secrets, and hoary Freudian analysis figure into this fall's latest novels.

The Ghost at the Table, by Suzanne Berne

Thanksgiving with the Fiskes is not for the frail of digestion. Their dad has suffered a stroke, and middle daughter Frances is determined to give him a holiday worthy of Martha Stewart's photo album. To that end, she has called home sister Cynthia, who's working on a book about the daughters of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). Frances is determined to buff out every imperfection of their childhood with an invalid mother and a reprobate dad, while Cynthia believes bad memories should be scrutinized under klieg lights. As the turkey is carved and the pies get passed, Orange Prize winner Berne shows how family members can live through the same events and yet end up with radically different impressions. The Fiskes parallel the Clemenses too closely, and the plot could have shed a few indulgences near the end. But Berne has created a disquieting novel that avoids pat answers. Grade: B

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

In this sequel to Atkinson's highly acclaimed "Case Histories," detective Jackson Brodie has retired and moved to France, where the money he inherited in the last book has unhinged his sense of self-worth. In Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, he sees what looks like a case of road rage. Also present are a meek detective writer, two teenage shoplifters, and the wife of a crooked developer. Atkinson's strength is characterization, and she jumps between witnesses as she builds connections from the random event. The intertwined stories of "Case Histories" were more heartbreaking, and there never seems to be much at stake here. But Atkinson knows how to delight with clever twists and supple writing, and – particularly with her portrayal of the hack writer – she seems to be having way more fun than any of her festivalgoers. Grade: B

The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld

Folks, can we declare a moratorium on sex maniacs stalking lovely young women? This time the tired scenario gets gussied up with some New York City history and a special visit from Sigmund Freud in the debut novel by Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld. The mutilated body of a young woman is found in a swanky New York apartment. The next day, a wealthy teen survives an attack that leaves her with identical wounds. But she can't identify her assailant: She has amnesia. Freud, in the US to give a series of lectures, is called in to consult and turns the case over to an American doctor, our rather callow narrator. Rubenfeld reproduces verbatim arguments between Freud and Carl Jung, and also uses one of Freud's case studies in his mystery. But when it comes to uniting psychiatry, detection, and history, there's no disguising the fact that Caleb Carr did it all better a decade ago with "The Alienist." Grade: C

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Setterfield's debut just begs to be read on a dark and rainy evening and offers readers the kind of solid pleasures more often associated with 19th-century novels. Amateur biographer Margaret Lea has been summoned by England's best-loved living novelist, Vida Winter, with an irresistible-sounding offer. After decades of frankly lying to reporters, Vida claims she's ready to tell her life story. She spins a tale of feral twins, governesses, and a house with a history that makes Thornfield Hall in "Jane Eyre" look like Walton's Mountain. A working knowledge of Charlotte Brontë's classic is helpful, but anyone who enjoys Gothic romances won't regret curling up with this one. Grade: B+

What Came Before He Shot Her, by Elizabeth George

George's last Inspector Lynley mystery ended in heartbreak: The Scotland Yard detective's pregnant wife was gunned down. But fans wanting to know how Lynley is coping will have to wait. Here, George rewinds the action to detail how a 12-year-old boy ended up in Belgravia with a gun in his hand. Joel is one of three children abandoned literally on their aunt's doorstep. His mentally troubled brother Toby has only a passing acquaintance with the real world, and his sister, Ness, seeks solace in drugs. Joel's efforts to find protection for his family lead from bad decision to hideously bad decision. George, shifting abruptly between London dialect and a clinically detached tone, may get a little didactic in places, but at least she aims high. Grade: B+

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