Love, solitude and gumshoeing


Everybody needs love, even a private eye. But how does that longing mesh with an independent spirit? Six mysteries here consider that question.

Robert Wilson has titled his eighth novel Blood Is Dirt (Harcourt, 320 pages, $14), borrowing a phrase from a Wilfred Owen poem. "Blood Is Everywhere" would have been equally apt. Wilson's book, first published in England seven years ago, is set in Nigeria and Benin. It opens with the gruesome slaughter of a sheep, a deliberate metaphor for what follows.

Bruce Medway is an English expatriate living in tenuous harmony with a German woman in Benin. His help is sought by another Englishman who has been robbed in a Nigerian scam that is basically an amped-up version of the "I am the son of the late leader X and I have $10 million in an overseas account" spam that litters the Internet. Napier Briggs is a commodities broker involved in the transport of oil, chemicals and toxic wastes who turns up spectacularly dead after consulting Medway - and the plot is off and running.

Running hard, too - Wilson can fairly be compared to Raymond Chandler. His prose is blunt and elegant, and his story is a hard-edged, complex puzzle of love, fear, greed and menace. It's all held together by sharply etched characters operating in a bloody, brutal Africa where hunger for money and power turns people into monsters, corpses or both. This is a tough and brilliant book.

Equally bleak but considerably colder is Michael Collins' Lost Souls (Viking Penguin, 272 pages, $23.95). Set in a "small, dead-end Midwest town" near Elkhart, Ind., Lost Souls opens on Halloween night. Police officer Lawrence (only one name is supplied) gets a late-night call that a child is missing. Lawrence finds 3-year-old Sarah Kendall dead in a roadside pile of leaves.

Tire tracks at the scene belong to a car owned by the local football hero, and the state championship game is coming up. Civic pride, hidden motives and small-town power grabs tangle what should be a simple case. As the town's fragile balance dissolves amid a mix of fundamentalist religion, political ambition and lies, Lawrence and his sometime girlfriend simultaneously stumble toward the truth and each other in a tale that is harsh, dissonant and a very good story.

Easy Rawlins is back. Little Scarlet (Little, Brown, 320 pages, $24.95) moves the black detective in Los Angeles out of the 1950s and into the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Rawlins is as stunned as everyone by the Watts riots. But a new day is rising from the ashes - a fact forced on Rawlins when white detectives from the LAPD seek his help in a black woman's murder.

Mosley has staked out the territory of race and racism since introducing Rawlins, and it is extensively examined here, along with Rawlins' struggle to stay faithful to his girlfriend and his two adopted children. This is not Mosley's best work; he has overloaded his characters with historical symbolism. The result is a didactic, clumsy story flow.

But less-than-perfect Mosley is still better than most - and this book appears to be a setup for future Rawlins adventures. By the novel's end, Rawlins has formed an uneasy alliance with one LAPD detective that strongly hints at a continuing relationship. That would be a good thing for readers of this singular series.

In her 23rd Sharon McCone mystery, Marcia Muller riffs on stability at work and at home. The Dangerous Hour (Mysterious Press, 290 pages, $25) opens with her San Francisco detective feeling good about life: McCone Investigations is on solid financial footing with computer, forensic and governmental affairs specialists. "Not a bad situation for a woman who once worked out of a converted closet at a poverty law firm," McCone thinks as she surveys San Francisco Bay from her office window.

But, as the title suggests, footing is never firm. Barely has McCone savored her good fortune before the wolf - two plainclothes officers arresting her newest star hire - is at the front desk. The case quickly reels into chaos that engulfs McCone and her colleagues. She's on her own with this one - longtime boyfriend Hy has retreated from view after McCone has fended off his umpteenth marriage proposal, and her dilemma about commitment is nicely interwoven with her fight to save her business.

As always with Muller, the city of San Francisco is a major character and it all makes for a light and lively read.

North Carolina Judge Deborah Knott is also in retreat from a marriage proposal in Margaret Maron's High Country Fall (Mysterious Press, 303 pages, $24). She's accepted the offer of longtime beau Dwight Bryant, but she's uneasy about it. So when the chief district court judge in coastal Colleton County calls to ask if she'll fill in across the state in Cedar Gap, she's ready to take a break from her extended family's extensive wedding planning.

The scenery is breathtaking in picturesque Cedar Gap, but it isn't long before Knott realizes that there's trouble brewing over how the little town in the Smokies will be developed. When one of the two local real estate moguls is murdered, the lid comes off the simmering dispute, giving Knott a bigger problem to solve than presiding over local court. Her twin cousins and a handsome attorney muddy the waters even further as Knott works toward resolution of the murder and her marital doubts.

Baltimore detective Tess Monaghan returns in Laura Lippman's By A Spider's Thread (William Morrow, 368 pages, $24.95). Boyfriend Crow has retreated to central Virginia to nurse his mother and wait for Monaghan to change her mind about turning down his marriage proposal. So Monaghan, like McCone, is on her own with her newest case: A wealthy Jewish furrier whose wife has vanished, taking their three children.

Lippman has set herself an ambitious task by trying to tell the story from multiple points of view while exploring Monaghan's own religious roots of Irish Catholicism and Judaism. She doesn't pull it off. The forced plot clunks badly, and Lippman relies heavily on deus ex machina devices to hoist her story toward an implausible end. But the book offers her trademark Baltimore lore for series fans and points Monaghan in a new direction for the next one.

Dail Willis, a former Sun reporter and editor, is a financial writer in Charlottesville, Va. Her reviews have been published by The Sun, the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers, as well as the Associated Press.

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