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EUGEN WEBER KILLING THE SHADOWS, By Val McDermid, St. Martin's Minotaur: 432 pp., $24.95 THE VETERAN: Five Heart-Stopping Stories, By Frederick Forsyth, St. Martin's Press: 368 pp., $24.95

January 27, 2002|EUGEN WEBER

Mysteries, thank God, flourish in overtilled fields, along with weeds and furze and compost puffs that encourage more to grow. The lusher the gore and menace, the more appetizing the fare; and Val McDermid serves plenty of both in a spicy sauce of suspense and apprehension.

In "Killing the Shadows," serial slaughterers and copycat killers are on the loose in England, Scotland, Ireland and Spain. One bloodthirsty loon among these birdwit nuts hunts down conspicuous crime and mystery writers; and that draws Fiona Cameron into the story because her lover, Kit Martin, a prominent thriller spinner, is among those whom the maniac threatens.

An academic psychologist, Cameron uses computer technology to track serial offenders. Powerful new programs that crunch numbers ever faster have accelerated criminal investigations. Cameron harnesses them to meld crime linkage, psychological profiling and the sort of geographical profiling that identifies clusters of crimes and allows her to chart probable areas where perps live, work--and perp. Her services were used but her advice ignored by London's Metropolitan Police, which nowadays clears up only one-quarter of crimes committed and obtains convictions on just 9% of those.

Soured by British police bungling, Cameron vows to stay away from them and keeps busy aiding Spanish cops in pursuing a murderous crackpot in Toledo. But the threat to Kit's life summons all her talents and wears down antipathy to police. Her quarry's slimy trail will lead from London to Dorset to Edinburgh and to the Highlands north of Inverness, where the explosive finale plays out.

As old ads used to say (when it still needed saying), "Never underestimate the power of a woman." Nor her determination either, nor McDermid's tantalizing talents in defining a world of peremptory laptops, chirpy cell phones and billowing faxes. My only criticism is this cavil: that she afflicts her heroine with the specious notion that "she deserved some sort of punishment for taking the life of another human being," when some so-called humans are better dispensed with.

But that's small chiding beside the credit for a canny, varied and tortuous voyage through the busy realms of computers and of the people attached to them.

Frederick Forsyth is the author of 10 page-turners that include such bestsellers as "The Day of the Jackal" and "The Odessa File." He also believes, like his namesake Federico Fellini, that reality distorts. Forsyth's realities are false fronts: Apparent factuality is there to ensnare; straightforward narrative decoys unwary readers into authorial ambush.

In "The Veteran," he offers not one more novel but five long short stories cleverly crafted to string us along to the sting in their tail. All, in other words, are about deception, concealment, revelation. All but one are about scams--a term related to the Indo-European root skam or skem, meaning "to hide." Forsyth's characters hide their doings and deceptions or else they're blind to misapprehensions of their own.

The title story, about the killing of an elderly man on a London street and how his murderers meet justice, is a model of the genre. So is the second, about art scammers who are scammed. Two more--one about an alleged miracle in Siena during the Renaissance, the other about drug smugglers on a plane from Bangkok to Heathrow--although piquant enough, are less substantial.

The last story is a matter of taste. Played out in America's mountain West, it begins in Gen. Custer's mid-19th century and ends as a contemporary ghost-love story that testifies to the everydayness of the uncanny. I didn't think I'd like it, but I did. And you might too.

Lucid, vivid and delightfully readable, Forsyth is a master word-spinner and a master of meticulous detail, too. Aggressively authentic, his details are sometimes irrelevant, used more to spin out the story than to clue in the reader. But the long march from scam to setup to comeuppance is worth it in the end, when the spell lifts and the spin's betrayed.

*

Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

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