New Orleans in 1918 is the messy and exciting setting of
“King Zeno” (MCD, 386 pages, $28). In Mr. Rich’s Crescent City, Creole cornet player Isadore Zeno labors at backbreaking day jobs in order to support his pregnant wife, while also trying to serve his artistic muse.
While Zeno chases immortality with his horn, a more brutal “performer” is gaining notoriety in New Orleans: a murderer known as “the Axman.” Police detective Bill Bastrop is desperate to catch the Axman, in the hope of redeeming an act of cowardice in the Great War.
Zeno meanwhile devises a clever but ill-advised plan to publicize his band by capitalizing on the town’s Axman anxiety: He sends a letter to the press promising safety on a certain night to all residents who hire a jazz band to perform for them that evening—and he signs it “the Axman.” The ploy draws the ire of the actual Axman—and makes Zeno the new focus of Bastrop’s suspicion.
Mr. Rich tells a complicated story with great skill and style, sketching the mental lives of a dozen major characters and bringing a vanished era to colorful and realistic life. Despite the social inequity, dreadful hygiene and lack of penicillin, it’s refreshing to spend time in a milieu where jazz (or “jass”) music can provide a path to moral triumph.
Also taking place in the wake of World War I is
“The Widows of Malabar Hill” (Soho Crime, 385 pages, $26.95). This intriguing novel features Perveen Mistry, “the only woman solicitor in Bombay.” The 23-year-old, Oxford-educated Perveen works (out of court) on behalf of her father’s clients, sometimes assuming the duties of an unofficial detective.
The most challenging case occupying the family law firm is the estate of the late Omar Farid, a Muslim “polygynist.” The fate of Farid’s three wives and four children are now in the hands of the live-in estate manager, who keeps the women dwelling in purdah isolation. Perveen is assigned to speak with the widows, whose financial arrangements have been unjustly altered by the tyrannical manager.
Soon after the solicitor’s visit, however, the unscrupulous agent is found stabbed to death—and Perveen wants to help apprehend the murderer. But what if it turns out to be one of the widows? “She was supposed to defend them,” she reminds herself, “not throw them to the wolves.” As she pores over crucial documents and travels to conduct interviews, part of her attention is consumed by her estranged but vengeful husband, who threatened Perveen and her father when they last saw him years before. When he shows up in Bombay, Perveen must ensure her ultimate emancipation—even as she works to free the three widows from their own vexed situations.
Ms. Massey, through adroit flashbacks, interweaves into the current mystery the saga of Perveen’s grim marital misadventure. “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” with its deft prose and well-wrought characters, is a splendid first installment in what promises to be a memorable series.
“Mephisto Waltz” (Pegasus, 293 pages, $25.95), by
takes us to Vienna in 1904: a city of widespread culture, fading empire and an abundance of nervous energy. “The Viennese were so highly strung,” one character here observes, “even symphonies got them agitated.”
There are much graver events in Mr. Tallis’s story to provoke citizens’ anxieties—such as the discovery, in an abandoned piano factory, of the corpse of a man shot to death, his face mutilated beyond recognition by acid. Investigating this grotesque murder is the portly Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, assisted by his friend, Dr. Max Liebermann.
The doctor’s English lover—a former patient of his—also lends a hand in the case, which widens to include further killings and a conspiracy to commit “an incident of propaganda by deed”: what we now call a terrorist act. Masterminding the plot is a figure code-named Mephistopheles—a shadowy presence whom the reader learns much more about than do the detectives.
Mr. Tallis, a London author and psychologist, has written a marvelous, multi-layered thriller, rich with period detail and studded with cameo appearances by figures such as automaker
(encountered here as the chauffeur of Archduke
(an informal adviser of Liebermann’s). “Mephisto Waltz” often exhibits the energy of the
pieces after which it’s named: a “wild and sinister . . . delirium,” in Liebermann’s perception, in which “notes sparkled, glittered [and] exploded like fireworks.” Yet the book is also undercut with a dark and sophisticated wit perhaps best termed . . . Viennese.