An excellent tale of murder, "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is also a careful reconstruction of cultural history. Iain Pears accomplishes something quite extraordinary in it. He elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art. His novel will inevitably invite comparisons with Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," but Eco's equally long book is really an intellectual's revenge on moralists, in which a medieval monk, who considers humor sinful, refuses to copy Aristotle's treatise on comedy and is willing to kill to destroy the philosophical justification of comedy. Pears' story is more gritty; he writes closer to the genuine tradition of detective fiction and uses the historical setting not because it is quaint but because that age, except for technology, is so much like our own: Like us, the 17th century English are torn between science and religion, idealism and cynicism. In presenting the contradictions of the age, Pears proves that the past does have a future.
-- ALFRED MAC ADAM
THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS; By Colum McCann; Metropolitan Books: 289 pp., $23
The explosive launch to Colum McCann's novel, like that of a space probe, takes the reader to some far and uncanny places. It is hard to encapsulate "This Side of Brightness" or to convey its author's accomplishment in combining so many different elements to such effect. It is partly a story of the men who dug and blasted New York's tunnels and of the high-steel workers who turned horizontal astonishment upon its vertical end, balancing hundreds of teetery feet above the streets to subdue the swinging girders and bolt them together into skyscrapers. Told with gripping realism and subtle detail, the facts--history researched--glow like jewels. "Brightness" is also a moving, beautifully written account of three generations of the racially mixed family of Nathan Walker, a black man from the Okefenokee Swamp who rises to the perilous tunnel position of "front hog" and, having survived the East River blast, goes on to work underground for the next 30 years.
-- RICHARD EDER
THE ALL-TRUE TRAVELS AND ADVENTURES OF LIDIE NEWTON; By Jane Smiley; Alfred A. Knopf: 452 pp., $26
Jane Smiley's ninth book of fiction is a memoir focusing on the action-packed, life-altering 21st year of a feisty heroine from Quincy, Ill., who marries a Yankee abolitionist and accompanies him to Kansas Territory. There, a fight that presages the Civil War is waging between Free Staters and Missourians over whether the new state will abide slavery. Smiley's novel is a rousing, grippingly paced historical saga, but it manages at the same time--in classic Smiley fashion--to also be a touching portrait of marital love, an account of personal growth from ideological ambivalence to strong convictions and a searching inquiry into complex moral issues. The intricate emotional analysis for which Smiley has become justly celebrated, tracing characters' feelings as they fluctuate and evolve with the precision of fine needlework, is much in evidence in "Lidie Newton." She is as adept at capturing the subtle nuances of relationships as she is at chronicling complex political activity. This is a gripping story about love, fortitude and convictions that are worth fighting for regardless of the outcome.
-- HELLER MCALPIN
SPENDING; By Mary Gordon; Scribner: 302 pp., $24
Mary Gordon calls her fifth novel, "Spending," "a utopian divertimento." I call it a lark, with more orgasms per page than anything I've read since "Portnoy's Complaint" or "A Sport and a Pastime"--but from the female point of view. In a nutshell, it's about sex and money and art, and it's filled with plenty of all three, but it's the sex that takes you by surprise. It's a departure for Gordon, who isn't exactly known for being light, never mind lusty. It's as if she's expressing her sense of liberation after working through complex emotions about her mysterious, disappointingly all-too-human father in her 1996 memoir, "The Shadow Man." It's also as if she's out to prove that she's got a sense of humor. "Spending" is at once a witty ode to unmarried midlife love, an avant-garde feminist artist's roundabout justification for being shacked up with a rich Jewish commodities trader and a meditation on the values we place on art, sex and money.
-- HELLER MCALPIN
A CROWDED HEART; By Nicholas Papandreou; Picador: 192 pp., $21