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L.A. CONFIDENTIAL

Murder most foul, and the apocalypse too

On Edge, Barbara Fister, Dell: 288 pp., $6.50 paper Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools, Marshall Browne, St. Martin's: 320 pp., $23.95

January 19, 2003|Eugen Weber | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Brimsport, pop. 12,320, is a picture-perfect townlet on the coast of Maine. In Barbara Fister's "On Edge," that's where America's fascination with sexual predators who leech on local children exploded in the 1980s, leaving behind a flotsam of warped memories and bile. Now, after 20 years, the nightmare returns. As little girls begin to disappear, the atmosphere of violence and fear is reactivated, rumors run rampant and, while police blunder through wastelands of tattle and delusion, vigilantes mushroom, waiting to turn into lynch mobs.

That's when Konstantin Slovo of the Chicago P.D. turns up, trying to put as much space between himself and nightmares of his own. His arrival in the bucolic bailiwick brings Brimsport to a boil and lands Slovo himself in as much new trouble as he had left behind. Fister serves up more suspects than you can shake a stick at and more psychos than should be allowed in any loony-toon town. She stipples and shades a setting where secrets lurk, suspicions skulk and dread lies in ambush.

Most originally, though, Fister trots out a hero, Slovo, who is seriously unbalanced, intrepid but also irascible, irresponsible and rash -- a self-made patsy, really, and hard to warm up to as one reads. Despite all this (or perhaps because), the effect is gripping. "On Edge" is just the paperback to browse when your plane enters a zone of turbulence and the pilot turns on the fasten-seat-belts sign.

There's quite a bit of turbulence in "Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools" because that's what Marshall Browne's Italian troubleshooter gravitates to; also because Anders and his sidekick, Det. Matucci, spend a lot of time crisscrossing Europe by air. Both are now attached to Interpol in Lyon; but they weave around the continent: Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich and Strasbourg -- especially Strasbourg, where, in 1494, Sebastian Brant launched his "Ship of Fools," one of the most popular works of the age.

A wildly popular poem, Brant's "Narrenschiff" is manned by every conceivable representative of folly, fatuity, prejudice, too much imagination and too little; including the eccentric and the imprudent, the greedy and the adulterous, the vicious and the martyr-prone determined to shoulder the world's cares before anyone steals their thunder. All of these are represented in Browne's pages: Each sooner or later turns up in the course of Anders' and Matucci's peregrinations.

The plot is straightforward. Amid a tide of mergers, each of which throws thousands out of work, terrorists who call themselves the Judgment Day group are bumping off the leaders of great corporations that are about to merge. In the book's first scene, a bomb splatters a Frankfurt boardroom with the blood and body parts of 16 executives of two pharmaceutical giants, blown apart while negotiating their union-to-be. A Judgment Day manifesto presents the attack as a warning to corporations and multinationals about to "sacrifice the lives of European workers and their families on the obscene altar of directors' salaries, bonuses and share options."

The European Community is put on notice that other proposed mergers threatening to decimate communities will bring consequences just as dire. That's what Anders & Co are called in to prevent and fail to do. At least, they fail long enough to permit the killer or killers (who punctuate the messages with quotations from Brant's poem) to litter the narrative landscape with a string of victims imaginatively dispatched.

We don't like terrorists because they're wanton, callous and crazy. But one man's terrorist is another man's hero; and a handful of well-groomed capitalists seems a small price to pay for the welfare of innocent thousands threatened by their selfish manipulations. A Socialist who has lost a leg in the Mafia wars, Anders is aware of the reasons, rationalizations, justifications and sophistries involved in the case. As bloody messianic delusions challenge self-serving moneybags, he tries to work around both.

Slow, cautious, weary, hurting, nerve-racked and reticent, the inspector sticks simply to his job, which is to search, sift and discriminate between suspicion and evidence. He seems to live on coffee, pills and professionalism, and the diet agrees with him. He shoots straight. Meanwhile the perp himself turns out to be one of Brant's fools, puffed up with pride and overconfident in his great powers. But Judgment Day does not lie within human purview. For of that day and hour knoweth no man....

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