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Mysteries

Satire, Sadism and Romance Frame Intrigue Set in the Art World

July 22, 2001|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This case thunders with madness, identity changes, demonic masks and profound ambiguities," Michel Danton, investigator for the Aix-en-Provence Police Judiciare, declares in Norman Bogner's "The Deadliest Art" (Forge, 384 pages, $25.95). A psychiatrist friend is quick to add, "Don't forget sadism."

True on all counts, and they've been exposed to only a small section of the malevolent mural. As in Danton's death-filled first outing, "To Die in Provence," some very unpleasant tourists arrive in Cezanne's hometown with, if not murder, then certainly mayhem on their minds.

The new visitors are Venice beachniks, Garrett Lee Brant, possibly the most talented tattoo artist in the world, at least in his own mind, and his beautiful better half, Eve. Garrett, an aesthete haunted by the ghost of Paul Gauguin, has gone abroad with the idea of broadening his artistry on teenage female canvases, willing or not. Eve, whom he picked up on a night in Bangkok, has eagerly agreed to assist him in securing his subjects. Also lending support is Garrett's former amour, the fabulously wealthy, thoroughly decadent Heather Malone. This trio might have stepped from the pages of a Jackie Collins novel except that their portraits include colors not usually on Collins' palette-among them irony and satire. Bogner's eloquent descriptions of the delusional and very dangerous Garrett's pursuit of his muse are a fascinating combination of gut-wrenching violence and gut-busting commentary on the contemporary art scene.

The sadistic misdeeds, satirical and not, of Garrett and his fellow art enthusiasts are just part of the tale. The rest concentrates on the worldly and witty Danton, whose impending marriage to the damsel he rescued in Book One is complicated somewhat by the discovery of the corpses, not to mention the arrival of his prospective mother-in-law.

There's charm and humor and suspense to be found while following the detective from wedding-suit tailor to morgue, from bachelor party to crime scene. But Bogner has painted his evil-doers in such broad and vivid hues that they threaten to draw the eye away from the more subtle strokes.

Still, Danton remains in control, even when trailing the villains to the unfamiliar territory of Venice, Calif. According to one salty character's description of the area: "The kids feed health food to the ducks, but if parents can't cut [cocaine] lines by seven, they jump into the canal."

Maybe so, but after gourmet Danton discovers "Jody Maroni's Sausage World ... the eccentric scruffiness" gives way to a neighborhood "swarming with ducks, birds, dogs, palms, evergreens, roses in profusion," reminding him of "one of those small villages on the banks of the Seine, but without the Renoir boating-scene bars." In fact, Venice's charm sets him (and the reader) up for Bogner's shocker of a finale.

Rick Riordan is another author with a knack for powerful endings. His fourth novel featuring San Antonio private eye-English prof Tres Navarre, "The Devil Went Down to Austin" (Bantam, 319 pages, $23.95), opens with its hero about to lose the family ranch.

His older brother, Garrett (the mystery novel name of the month, evidently), a computer whiz in a wheelchair, has used it as collateral on a new start-up dot.com that has caught the cold eye of Matthew Pena, a smarmy vulture capitalist who more than lives up to the designation.

When one of his partners is killed, leaving Garrett the main suspect, Tres investigates Pena and finds him to be the sort of ethically deprived businessman who uses harassment, dirty tricks and even extortion to get what he wants. He is rumored to have caused at least one suicide and may even have drowned his fiancee.

But is he the homicidal maniac who did away with Garrett's partner and who is sending out e-mails that gleefully describe his murders?

Riordan provides a full cast of fascinating whodunit characters who could fill the killer bill. But he also intersperses Navarre's narration with e-mails that narrow the field a bit too soon. Still, the book is a solid job of storytelling, and Riordan renders two underwater set pieces and the final confrontation with the killer as spookily and breathlessly as any suspense fan could wish.

Kathy Reichs' last novel about Temperance "Tempe" Brennan, "Deadly Decisions," had the feisty medical examiner involved with rival Canadian biker gangs, a premise I thought a bit anachronistic, if not silly.

Now that James Lee Burke has weighed in with his take on rapin' an' murderin' chopper daddies in "Bitterroot," and Rick Riordan has included some Lone Star cyclists in his latest (above), I'm willing to admit that, regardless of Jay Leno's public relations efforts to the contrary, the stereotypical image of the psychotic and Satanic hog jockey evidently lives on in our culture, like the vampire, the cowboy and the private eye.

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