From Poe and Doyle to Cornwell and Nesbø, the crime genre has assured us that for all the grotesqueries in the world there are public or private forces to set things right. But many of the best writers of the 20th and 21st centuries bring a different argument to the table: For all the seeming normalcy of the world around us, there are forces out there -- political, psychological -- to tear the world apart. And the people to whom we have often turned either don't care or are helpless to do anything about it.
This isn't a message that many mystery readers want to hear, and to find these more literary, transgressive (and less predictable) writers, we often have to turn to smaller, more adventurous presses with names that promise a shock to the system -- Felony & Mayhem, Bitter Lemon, Overlook. Here are three of their latest releases.
Setting a mystery during the Holocaust could be cheap or sensationalistic. In "The Warsaw Anagrams" (Overlook Press, $25.95), Richard Zimler quickly dispels both concerns with smart, metaphorical writing that owes more to Isaac Bashevis Singer than to Richard North Patterson. Erik Cohen is a psychiatrist condemned to the deprivations and humiliations of the Warsaw Ghetto, where he lives with his daughter and grandson, whose eventual death Cohen feels responsible for. When we meet him, though, he's a ghost of his former self -- literally, a Jewish ibbur.
Cohen tells his story, months after his death, to the only man who can see him. The issue isn't who killed his grandson, but a Torah-inspired journey into ethics -- atonement, sacrifice, acting ethically though life is seemingly meaningless. After the boy's body is found, Cohen blames himself for letting the boy go out to play despite the growing danger posed by patrolling Nazis. But instead of giving in to his shame, Cohen harnesses his inner Holmes to his Freudian analysis of human brutality to figure out who killed his grandson and what's going on between the Nazis and Jewish Poles out to save themselves. Zimler, in spare but striking prose, is masterful at showing how ordinary people can be moved to do extraordinary evil and, just occasionally, extraordinary good.
Overlook, which publishes more than mysteries, doesn't refer to the lodge in "The Shining" but to writers who have been overlooked by other presses. The same could be said of Felony & Mayhem, which has just republished the late Michael David Anthony's "Dark Provenance" ($14.95 paper) from 1994.
Richard Harrison, the elderly head of maintenance for an Anglican church in Canterbury, is haunted by what he saw after liberating concentration camps and convinced that the death of a Jewish wartime colleague has something to do with anti-Nazi work. On the surface, this is a traditional mystery, something of an English cozy with its country setting and conservative narrative structure.
But what's interesting isn't the melodramatic, Christie-like unveiling of the murderer, but the attempt by Harrison (in his third and final Canterbury story) to act ethically while often landing in a deeper moral morass. The crisis comes when his colleague's daughter begs him to reconsider the police line that her father committed suicide. Harrison wishes he and his wheelchair-bound wife could just get on with the rest of their lives, but his wife knows, even when he doesn't, that such an attitude is what made the concentration camps possible in the first place.
Another admirable trait of these small publishers is to look for ports of call beyond the usual. Bitter Lemon Press offers a virtual travelogue of the world with bracing mysteries from Germany, Argentina and, in its latest, Turkey.
Esmahan Aykol's "Hotel Bosphorus" (translated by Ruth Whitehouse, $14.95 paper) features Kati Hirschel, 43, the German owner of a mystery bookstore in Istanbul, and a delightfully wry observer of German and Turkish mores. As this first in the series makes clear, she could be the love child of Miss Marple and NPR's Andrei Codrescu.
The author also divides her time between Germany and Turkey and uses her heroine's bemusement with both countries -- as well as her curiosity about men and celebrity -- to spin a lively tale when Hirschel's friend is suspected of murdering her lover and the quasi-detective is drawn simultaneously into the world of the Turkish police and Turkish underground. It doesn't matter much who done it. What matters is that Aykol uses the genre to tell us a little more about the world than we're used to hearing from more commercial writers.