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Death in Holy Orders
P.D. James
Alfred A. Knopf
415 pp.


Death in Holy Orders, P.D. James's latest Adam Dalgliesh mystery, offers something relatively rare in the genre: a complicated mystery whose character development and setting detail are as sophisticated and engrossing as anything offered by the best literary novels. In fact, the mystery elements lag a bit behind the novelistic touches, at least in the opening pages.

After the son of a prosperous businessman is found dead under the dangerous sand cliffs near his remote theological college (a fictional St. Anselm's on the coast of England's East Anglia), the school's staff is relieved to hear it officially declared an accident. The college is in jeopardy of being shut down--it has only twenty students, and the Church of England wants to centralize its theological training in two or three main centers--and the death of one of its students doesn't help its cause. But the dead student's father isn't willing to let the verdict stand unchallenged, and he insists that New Scotland Yard send Commander Adam Dalgliesh to investigate the death himself.

Dalgliesh, as it happens, spent three childhood summers at the college, and he's more than happy to take his week off and travel back into the past, as it were. But this is a murder mystery, of course, and James does a wonderful job of filling the college up with a variety of compelling suspects--among them, the Archdeacon whose single-minded purpose is to close the college, the policeman who aggressively investigated the suicide of the Archdeacon's wife, and the priest the Archdeacon successfully accused of child molestation. And before it's all over, at least one of them will become a murder victim.

Until the bodies start piling up, though--yes, this is a 'cozy' with a relatively high body count--the chief delights offered by Death in Holy Orders lie it its intelligence and abundance of carefully observed and patiently assembled minutiae of details. James's patience as a writer--her dual understanding of narrative pace and character and setting development--is remarkable. The feeling that we have slipped deliciously and completely into another person's world and can experience everything--memory, the smell of autumn, the sorrowful joy of being alone--is fundamental to our desire to read, I suspect, no matter what the academics may say against the mimetic impulse. The fact that James can satisfy that desire while walking us through a cunning maze of clues and intriguing suspects as if solving the mystery were the only thing she is up to is impressive, indeed.

Death in Holy Orders is a wonderful, satisfyingly dense work from a master.

--Daphne Frostchild

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The Inventory
Gila Lustiger
translated from the German by Rebecca Morrison
Arcade Publishing
294 pp.


Given Gila Lustiger's refreshingly experimental tendencies, one must inevitably, I suppose, declare her debut, The Inventory, a postmodern novel of sorts. Its fragmented, collage-like storyline about Nazi Germany certainly invites the description, as does its range of narrative voices. Rather than taking the course of a traditional novel, in which we follow a small group of interconnected, hierarchically defined characters through a storyline that falls neatly into a set beginning, middle and an end, Lustiger builds her text incrementally and circumspectly through a wide range of seemingly peripheral characters, vignettes and extended stories, and she doesn't force their associative links to the surface as one might expect. Indeed, if the reader doesn't have a good memory for character names, the cunning work Lustiger does to connect her seemingly unrelated characters might go unappreciated.

While her structural experiments are impressive, though, it's the range of Lustiger's narrative voice that I find most impressive. Some chapters are told in the first person with the narrator seemingly aware of his fictional status (more postmodern acrobatics, of course); others are told in the first person by narrators who seem to be delivering resoundingly real reports. Other chapters are told in the third person by an uncharacterized narrator, and it is these that tend, most interestingly, toward an unexpected sort of sarcasm and ironic distance. It's the same sort of device French New Wave directors like Godard and Truffaut used to great effect in their early films (think, for instance, of the voice-over narrator in Jules et Jim): understated and documentary in tone, it has the effect of rendering the characters into ironically scientific curiosities. It's a seductive effect, particularly given Lustiger's grim subject. Because she doesn't overdramatize her text, the randomness and sudden terror of the Party's attacks become more immediate and deeply felt.

For all the structural and tonal variety, The Inventory's characters share a common trait: they all learn to doubt 'certainties'--that, for example, receiving an Iron Cross in the First World War demonstrates conclusively that one is solidly German, despite being a Jew, or that doing the bidding of the Party will secure one's own position among the 'elect.' In place of their lost certainties, Lustiger's characters find only paranoia--the feeling that nothing (and no one) can be assumed to be what it appears. Characters learn not to speak too much and to inspect a public room carefully before entering. And perhaps most devastatingly, Lustiger's characters learn not to expect happy endings with anything like the certainty their earlier lives suggested. "Yes," one character tells us, "we were presumptuous, because we considered ourselves untouchable, because we thought that luck was on our side. And had anyone said to me that I would lose everything that was dear to me, I would have laughed in his face."

Although The Inventory was a bestseller in France and Germany when it first appeared six years ago, its appearance in English translation has been decidedly slow in coming. It's hard to see why. Rebecca Morrison's translation is agile and even poetic at times, and while the subject matter and setting are relayed with the assumption of a German native's familiarity, they should offer the patient reader no more concern than she might face with any other instance of world literature.

Perhaps most importantly, though, The Inventory is a superb counterexample to the argument that novel experimentation is necessarily an empty excuse for acrobatics. It's a significant work that casts a familiar subject into a stark, fresh light.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Stoned: A Memoir of London in the 1960s
Andrew Loog Oldham
St. Martins Press
400 pp.


As the Rolling Stones's original manager and producer, Andrew Loog Oldham suavely transformed the band's persona into a smirking funhouse mirror image of the clean-cut Beatles and sold those goods to a public eager for a rough-edged alternative to the Fab Four. It's an image not far removed from Oldham's self-portrait: his new autobiography, Stoned: A Memoir of London in the 1960s, feels at times like an object lesson in how to turn juvenile delinquency into a career. Oldham's account of his eyebrow-raising exploits had me repeatedly checking to make sure I still had my wallet, but I'm eagerly awaiting the second volume of this projected three-part series.

Stoned takes an unusual form for a rock and roll memoir: Oldham's own recollections are intercut with excerpts from over seventy interviews (including Mary Quant, Pete Townsend, Vidal Sassoon and Marianne Faithful). I would have guessed it was a recipe for disaster, but the book is so skillfully edited that the narrative sweep isn't lost. Oldham should get special praise, I think, for not pulling his readers into confusing diversions just for the sake of name-dropping. In fact, the interview style fleshes out the book's depth, and in some cases, it offers alternative views that are humorously at odds with Oldham's own take.

More than just a book on the Rolling Stones or a biography of Oldham, Stoned brims with the rock elite of the sixties. The Beatles, the Who, and a host of other rock and roll legends have walk-on parts that, far from having that sad, tacked-on feeling that many of these memoirs give, actually serve an integral role in the story. Certainly, there are moments when Oldham's self-promotion shines through, and his exploits occasionally come across as tinted with a little rose-colored hindsight. But just as we readily forgive Oliver's Artful Dodger for his transgressions, you finds yourself grinning at the hint of an underlying Oldham con; we're simply won over by its audacity and its wit.

As a memoirist, Oldham is impressively open, but one has to wonder how much any of the participants of the sixties really remember. Mick Jagger himself retreated from a high-profile autobiography and publishing advance a few years ago under rumor that he actually couldn't recall his own exploits with any real accuracy. Nonetheless, Stoned offers the same veracity the Impressionists were able to achieve a century ago: maybe that haystack wasn't actually purple, but in the midday sun, it certainly felt that way.

Generally, the production values on these types of books are minimal, but Stoned feels solid from its excellent cover and layout to its selection of photographs. Even the fonts are well-chosen. St. Martins Press deserves kudos for producing a little gem that, after having been read, feels like it should have a place on your shelf, not the remainders bin. Indeed, Stoned will leave you wondering why it wasn't written and published years ago.

--William Shinault IV

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Back from the Dead
Chris Petit
Alfred A. Knopf
260 pp.


Chris Petit's Back from the Dead is, to put it mildly, a highly unpredictable thriller.

McMahon, an aging rock star who hasn't written a song in years, receives a series of erotically charged letters written by a girl psychiatrists would consider dangerously obsessed. Granted, it's not unusual for celebrities to be the target of stalkers and obsessives, but this girl's case is different: she died in France fifteen years before, while babysitting the child of one of MacMahon's bandmates.

Creepy, eh?

Youselli, a thirty-six-year-old New York City cop with all the world weariness you'd expect in a thriller's fallen hero, agrees to investigate the letters but--inevitably, perhaps--he finds the case becoming complicated. Complicated by his failure to find evidence that the letters are not, in fact, coming from a dead girl; complicated by his inability to determine how the girl died or even if she died at all; and perhaps most unnervingly, complicated by Youselli's own powerful attraction to the dead girl.

Before it's all over, several unexpected turns will be taken, including black magic, child murders and the possibility of physical resurrection. Sometimes, the turns intoxicate; sometimes, they merely surprise. Petit isn't a tidy miniaturist; for a relatively short novel, Back from the Dead sprawls comfortably--even decadently--across a crazily scattered plot.

In part, Back from the Dead is an exploration of fame and the dangerous illusion of invincibility it seems to offer. It is also, I suppose, an examination into what Borges called the Garden of Forking Paths--the possibility that the world isn't as linear and easily known (or remembered) as you might like. We all know that feeling of wondering what the world might have been like if a seemingly minor event hadn't happened--if the car in front of you hadn't stopped for that red light, say. In Back from the Dead, Petit blows that feeling up to include the seemingly known fate of a whole life--or many.

For readers who like their plots loose and a little wild, it's a perfect, unsettling meditation of a thriller.

--Charlie Onion

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