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Mysterious Moments
by Gary Draper

I DON`T READ A LOT OF MYSTERIES, partly because they often leave me feeling let down. "Okay," I think when I`m done, 11 now I know who did it. Who cares?" When all that drives a novel is the solution to a puzzle, the novel seems a kind of cheat; after all, there is such a range of pleasures to he had from fiction that it`s a shame to restrict the reader to the enjoyment of a suspenseful plot. But Gail Bowen`s first novel, Deadly Appearances (Douglas & McIntyre, 222 pages, $24-95 cloth) didn`t strike me that way at all. The pleasures to he had from this book are many and various. Bowen`s characters are both credible and engaging. The central figure (and narrator) is Joanne Kilbourn, a speech writer for Andy Boychuk, a prairie politician of immense promise. Andy dies in the novel`s opening sentence, and Joanne`s first challenge is to unravel his death. Her second is to stay alive long enough to do it. Joanne`s friends, her newmade enemies, and the people she meets along the way are exceptionally well drawn. Soren Eames, the very successful but distressed head of the Wolf River Bible College, is particularly good, as is the newsman Rick Spenser, the new man in Joanne`s life. And of course there is a mystery woman -- with auburn hair who offers a nice plot twist. The dialogue is sharp and allusive without being arty or unbelievable. There are some lovely moments that have to do with the illumination of character through speech: when, for example, the investigating officer turns to ice on Joanne, or when Andy`s widow chants "Consciousness. Energy. Consciousness. Energy" as a kind of mantra to see her through the funeral. Bowen`s strengths as a writer are nowhere more evident than in her opening chapter, which is taut with clearly described, well-paced action, bristling with tension and stirring moments -including an astonishing scene in which Andy`s mother spits in the face of the auburn-haired mystery woman. Description, in particular, is handled deftly: of the way people look, of the physical setting, of the world of the political insider. Bowen gives the reader a sense of place without indulging herself. Well, perhaps there is one indulgence, but it`s an eminently forgivable one: not since JaIna have I read a book where the preparation and consumption of food played such a happily major role. There is a good deal of dry wit, and phrases that are well but not showily turned. I loved, for example, the line that one of Joanne`s sons has written on his science notebook: "Fun is fun till somebody starts to mutate." Or Joanne`s observation about the day of Andy`s death: "But in politics there is always subtext, and that brilliant August day had enough subtext for a Bergman movie." But if there is much here for non-fans of the genre to like, there is also plenty for the aficionados. The mysteries (because of course there`s more than one) beg to be solved. The suspense is strong and the pacing remarkably tight. Moreover, Bowen is honest with her clues. She offers some very engaging red herrings, but she also gives the reader a fair chance to see the answers before Joanne does. As the killer`s identity becomes Clearer, the suspense only intensifies, until it becomes almost unbearable. And the book`s conclusion is satisfying without being hopelessly neat. I found this, in the most literal sense, a very hard book to put down. Gwyn Paul Williams`s novel has an oddly similar title to Gail Bowen`s- It`s called Deadly Illusion (Gilt-Edged Dream Company, 280 pages, $12.00 paper) and the two books also have some aims in common, including the creation of suspense and surprising turns of plot. The setting is the aftermath of a shooting vaguely reminiscent of the Kennedy assassination, though in this case it is the Canadian prime minister who has been gunned down in New Orleans, somewhere around the early 1970s. A Mountie named Tennison and a hot-shot reporter named Savannah set out to find what lies behind the cover-up. One of the novel`s most serious problems is that the characters are caricatures. Tennison is a "hunk of rough-hewn granite" whose "brawny good looks and shy strength" make him pretty much irresistible to women. Savannah is gorgeous and sexy and bright, an ace reporter who idles away the hours waiting for Tennison by outshooting the local pool sharks. Happily for Tennison, she is so turned on by the violence in which they become enmeshed that he needs to keep one hand free just to keep his pants on. And some of the violence is really quite nasty. Tennison savagely beats one of the bad guys whom he has already tied to a tree. Shortly afterwards he and Savannah torture him on an anthill. Later, as Tennison taunts and terrorizes another of his sleazy opponents, whose kneecaps he will calmly blow off with his service revolver, the narrator remarks that the Mountie "hadn`t imagined that this could he so much fun." Credibility is a problem here, both in character and incident. The device of Savannah`s undressing in order to meet Tennison seems the most blatant titillation, and not at all a fictional necessity. Later, and just as incredibly, she draws information from one of the nasties by hypnotizing him -- literally, not figuratively -- with the ruby that is nestled in her cleavage. The mystery is sidetracked for much too long in the book`s early going, and the reader may simply give up before the climactic, cliched shoot-out. Norman Wise`s Dark Legacy (New Dawn Books, 448 pages, $19.95 cloth) also aims to be suspenseful and surprising. The novel is a family epic with a large cast of characters, a wide span of both time and geography, and a plot -- or at least a sequence of events -- that goes ever on. There is something impressive about the sheer size of this book, and the effort of its making. Sadly, Wise has simply been unable to bring any spark of life to these people or their tangled histories, and his prose is awkward and lifeless, The dustjacket says that the author has two more books ready to go. I marvel at Wise`s industry, but it may be that a smaller canvas would give him the opportunity he needs to improve and polish his work. Scuttlebutt, by Jana L. Williams (Press Gang, 198 pages, $10.95 paper), is an altogether less ambitious and more successful book. Through the experiences of the central character, Roberta Weston, the reader follows the progress of a company of young women through U.S. Navy boot camp. Not a lot happens, but it i`s interesting to see inside a world that will be arcane for many readers. Sexual tension, racial discrimination, and some anxiety regarding rank and promotion provide the novel`s crises. Scuttlebutt is a very gentle book, and in a drama as low-key as this is, one might expect a little more of the inner life of its protagonist. Nonetheless there are some very nice moments that involve Weston`s sexual awakening, her achievements, and her partings. A sequel is promised. It will be interesting to see if Williams, having succeeded on this scale, will be able to take a few more chances in her next book. Arnold Itwaru`s Shanti (Coach House, 115 pages, $9.95 paper) is, by contrast, a book that takes all kinds of risks, a book of shocking intensity. The title character, whose name means "peace" in Hindi, is a young girl coming of age in the sugar plantations of Guyana. Hers is a world of poverty and humiliation, of racial tension, of sexual domination and abuse. It is also a world of false promises. Shanti will not be saved by her family, by love, work, or education, or by the deification of the British Empire. The book`s central themes are tightly interwoven and extremely welt balanced: imperialism, race hatred, sexual domination. This is a powerfully emotional story, but it is also exceptionally thought-provoking. Itwaru`s prose reads like poetry more often than not. He makes good use of repetition, broken sentences, and figurative language. Above all, Itwaru has an ear attuned to the spoken word, and I found myself frequently compelled to read aloud in order to hear the sounds and rhythms of the dialect he conveys so well. The writing is not uniformly successful. Sometimes the vocabulary is too lush, sometimes the intensity leads Itwaru into densely purple passages. Sometimes the literal sense is lost in the impressionistic surface, and the story buried by artifice. There are, moreover, occasional problems of pacing. But for the most part this is powerful, involving reading. Despite the lyricism of the prose, the book`s keynote is rage. In the light of the story that Itwaru has to tell, it is rage that seems eminently justified.

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