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3 compelling new mystery books

Reliable names in mystery writing shine in two new mysteries and a biography of the queen of the genre.

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  • Steve Donoghue

The month of March brings forth a profusion of murder mysteries. There are blind sleuths, married sleuths, bitterly divorced sleuths, and teenage sleuths. There are sleuths encountering crime and mayhem on every continent – and, in the case of a few science fiction titles, beyond Earth entirely.

And there are a number of familiar faces: authors and characters who’ve been intriguing and delighting readers for many years. One of the most venerable of those series is written by Donna Leon and stars Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti. Readers have been enjoying Brunetti’s adventures solving crime in Venice, Italy, since 1992’s “Death at La Fenice.” The genial Brunetti is a happily married husband, a caring father, and a patient listener with a virtually ultrasonic sensitivity for the unsaid. He’s the perfect hero for Leon’s minimal, almost lyrical writing style.

In the latest Brunetti book, The Temptation of Forgiveness, the hero’s peaceful domestic life is darkened by the fears of a friend of his wife. This friend is worried that her son is using drugs (as usual in Leon’s novels, the frank depiction of the darker aspects of life in modern Venice sits right alongside some of the most enchanting descriptions of the city in contemporary fiction). After the son’s father is found nearly dead at the foot of one of Venice’s many bridges, it becomes clear to Brunetti that everybody connected with the situation is passionately partisan and potentially dangerous. Brunetti doesn’t hesitate to embark on those rough seas again.

Throughout “The Temptation of Forgiveness,” Brunetti finds himself relying more than ever on the help of his fellow commissario, Claudia Griffoni, and something of that same kind of developing new professional relationship is also on hand in The Punishment She Deserves, the latest Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley novel from Elizabeth George, another well-known, reliable stalwart.

These meaty, psychologically probing stories (set in England even though George, like Leon, is American) began in 1988 with “A Great Deliverance,” and they have all starred the taciturn, cerebral, “extremely well-bred” Lynley, who’s described in this latest novel as “first and foremost a gent.”

In The Punishment She Deserves, the deacon of the sleepy town of Ludlow is found dead in police custody. Lynley becomes, for a significant portion of the narrative, a kind of peripheral player, yielding the investigative center stage to his colleague, Detective Sgt. Barbara Havers. This is a canny and risky move on George’s part, and she makes it work through building Havers into a character who’s fascinating in large part for how different she is from Lynley; their personal contrasts fuel the novel.

Personal contrasts abound in the season’s most outstanding mystery-related offering, even though that offering isn’t a novel. In her new biography, Laura Thompson, expert chronicler of the Mitford sisters, turns her attention to the famous “Queen of Crime.” Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life charts the long career and often tempestuous life of the woman who did as much as anybody to create the kind of book-a-year predictability that has shaped the careers of writers like Leon and George.

But the regularity of “a Christie for Christmas” masked long-standing conflicts Christie had with both of her husbands and with her daughter, and Thompson relates it all with novelistic energy.

“All biography is storytelling,” Thompson observes, and the story she tells so expertly in these pages ends in absolutely stratospheric success, culminating with Christie’s 80th birthday in 1970.

“From that point onwards her position was unassailable,” Thompson tells us. “She was the best-selling author in the world, after the Bible and Shakespeare; as she remains.” All hail the queen.

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