A new year signifies a fresh start, so it only seems appropriate to devote the first column of 2009 to a trio of debut crime novels.
The Rules of the Game
By Leonard Downie Jr.
Knopf / 321 pages / $25.95
Just a few months before the publication of this, his debut novel, Downie left his longtime post as The Washington Post's executive editor. So it's only natural that The Rules of the Game would have less to do with Jean Renoir and more to do with the intricate dance between journalists on the campaign trail and political operatives who alternately want their message to emerge but keep more embarrassing exploits well-hidden. The reader's guide through this labyrinth of Washingtonian sociocracy is Sarah Page, the epitome of world-weary innocence and journalistic virtue even if her sense of ethics definitely skews toward the gray end of the spectrum. Instructed by her employers (a stand-in for The Post) to investigate the goings-on of a top lobbying firm, what she finds puts her smack in the middle of a conspiracy extending all the way up the ladder to the current president. Downie is better when he's focusing more on political machinations - some eerily reminiscent of the 2008 election - than on developing credible characters, but this political thriller packs plenty of food for thought.
A Beautiful Place to Die
By Malla Nunn
Atria / 388 pages / $25
Australian filmmaker Nunn turns back the clock to the tumult of the early 1950s, where suspicion and paranoia intermingle with racism and barely suppressed desires, but infuses her debut novel with a sharp twist in the form of its setting: Jacob's Rest, a small town on the border between South Africa and Mozambique struggling to adapt to the new world of apartheid, creating a divide along black and white lines while forcing together native Afrikaners with interloping English colonizers. The not-so-pretty picture worsens when a police detective is murdered and Detective Emmanuel Cooper, an Englishman with not-quite-absolute opinions about his chosen town's direction, is charged with investigating the crime. Nunn teases out a complex tale of sexual depravity and family members prepared to protect even the worst of secrets in beautifully layered prose, but what makes A Beautiful Place to Die a debut to savor is the interplay between the cusp of social change and how then-socially accepted values seem monstrous to the modern reader.
By George Mastras
Scribner / 386 pages / $25
Just when you think it's not possible to read a debut novel that offers something fresh, a book comes along that catches you off-guard. Part of this off-kilter feeling, I suspect, came bundled with Matras' biography, listing various television credits for genre offerings that suggest a novel would lack heft. But Fidali's Way is a lushly written, panoramic view of the hills of Pakistan, the violent conflicts nestled within this far-flung locale and the damaged souls of its main characters - especially Nick Sunder, an American traveler looking for a sliver of meaning after a life chasing materialistic dreams. That simple goal seems to crash down with the brutal murder of his current lover and his escape to the village of Gilkamosh after police suspicion prompts a horrifying interrogation. Nick is the story's linchpin, but its soul is Aysha, a beautiful young woman whose quest to study and practice medicine puts her at odds with her deeply fundamentalist community. The caldron stirs its ingredients to a boiling point, producing climaxes of violence that leave impact lasting like a brand placed on unwelcoming skin.
Sarah Weinman reviews crime fiction every month for The Baltimore Sun. Visit her Web site at www.sarahweinman.com.