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FACELESS KILLERS;\o7 By Henning Mankell; (The New Press: 284 pp., $23)\f7

SIDETRACKED;\o7 By Henning Mankell; (The New Press: 350 pp., $25)\f7

THE WHITE LIONESS;\o7 By Henning Mankell; (The New Press: 500 pp., $25)\f7

IN A DRY SEASON;\o7 By Peter Robinson; (Avon Books: 422 pp., $24)\f7

May 16, 1999|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author of, most recently, "Apocalypses."

There's a fine new writer abroad, writing police whodunits, and the abroad is Sweden. When the first English translation of Henning Mankell's police procedurals appeared in 1997, fans of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's mysteries, frustrated by the latter's untimely death in 1975, could look to consolation at last." Faceless Killers," which is about an apparently senseless murder in a semi-rural area of Scania, in Southern Sweden, introduced Inspector Kurt Wallander, a local cop, imaginative but level-headed, as fond of music as of drinking, whose family life is as rumpled as his clothes.

Henning Mankell's writing is morish, his style expansive, his details are sharply observed, and his interest in political and social problems as strong as that of Sjowall and Wahloo. The problems, of course, have changed and, with them, the plots. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wahloo's Inspector Martin Beck reflected on dictatorships and on capitalism. Wallander in the 1990s has to cope with racism and unwanted immigrants; his investigation of the "Faceless Killers" proceeds in counterpoint with local resentment of a camp housing illegal immigrants.

Mankell's latest offering, "Sidetracked," is about the unexpected murder of a former minister of justice, the fiery suicide of an unidentified young woman, more brutal and apparently unconnected killings and the skein of corruption, crime and cover-ups that ties them together. It exposes the narrow margin between sanity and lunacy. And it meshes social commentary with police work, now plodding around in circles, now spurting forward after accidental discovery or sudden illumination, always obeying the supreme injunction: "Only connect!"

Connections, however, are sometimes far-fetched, good sentiments and social conscience pressed forward too far, as in "The White Lioness," which links an inexplicable execution-style killing in rural Scania to dark doings in just-post-apartheid South Africa. Dogged investigation reveals a plot to kill Nelson Mandela and set the racially torn African country on fire. The plot is foiled, but the tale is flawed. The Swedish sections of this self-indulgent book are as dourly fine as ever, the South African ones unconvincing and, worse, didactic. Still, two out of three is a pretty good score, especially when, in Steven Murray's translation, the two read so well.

"Sidetracked" again presents Mankell at his best; the evil hanky-panky continues, the slow, patient, harassed police work is tightly laid out. Strained, sleepless, overworked and driven, Wallander remains as solid and credible as ever. If you haven't read "Faceless Killers," you have something to look forward to. If you haven't bought "Sidetracked," do so ASAP.

You can take your time about getting to Peter Robinson's "In a Dry Season." The story moves at a deliberate pace, its devious digressions advancing the plot and yet inviting skippage. Drought drains a Yorkshire reservoir, revealing the remains of a village covered by water after World War II and the skeleton of a young woman viciously stabbed and strangled before the village was abandoned. Detective Chief Inspector Banks, an opera buff like Wallander (and like Inspector Morse) but a pop fan too, follows the cold trail and the stale clues, which are all he has, to unravel patchy records, transgressions and connections to an unpredictably explosive conclusion. Copious descriptions of English life during the last Great War should please social history buffs, but current sleuthing etiquette imposes frequent pit stops to air personal and professional problems. This slackens the pace of action; while cups of tea, country walks and a minimum of violence underline the contrast between criminal activities and criminal investigations in civil Britain and hectic California. One character describes the latter as "like a f---ing kindergarten run by fascists." So that's what they think in Yorkshire?

A thriller should be thrilling, and "The Color of Night" is that. It is also intricate, convoluted, sophisticated, sown with complications that explode like land mines when you least expect them and beautifully written to boot. Lindsey is an old hand at surprise and suspense. Here he keeps readers on the edge of their seats or makes them sit up in bed, if that's where they do their serious reading. And there's serious reading to be done.

Nearly half a billion dollars has been stolen, larcened, embezzled, virtualized or otherwise misappropriated. An astute ex-spy turned international art dealer, a malevolent international financier, his tainted tentacles dipped in shady deals and ruthless brutishness, and a colorful cast of rivalrous intelligence operatives, assorted art dealers, thugs and sommeliers blunder, slip, tumble about each other like lethal Keystone Kops, seeking to preserve the loot or recuperate it. Love lost, love found, fraud, slaughter, treachery, art and revenge are tossed in a spicy sauce and served against the background of Europe's better restaurants and best hotels. Money flows like wine, blood as readily, but the right characters make it in the end, so everything's all right. Lindsey's a prestidigitator not to miss. But why can't he spell his Italian wine right?

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