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on crime

‘The Tenth Witness,’ ‘Help for the Haunted,’ and ‘The Seance Society’

Len Rosen’s “The Tenth Witness” opens and closes with a man drowning in the rising tide of the North Sea, a man whom, Henri Poincaré tells us, “the world is well rid of.” This prequel to Rosen’s award-winning debut novel, “All Cry Chaos,” reveals what this man did to deserve his miserable end and how Poincaré abandoned a career as a hydraulics engineer to become an Interpol officer.

It’s a story of justice and true love at loggerheads as Poincaré, a deeply ethical man of conscience, falls in love with Liesel Kraus, the lovely daughter of former Nazi Otto Von Kraus. Now beatified in a new biography, Von Kraus is portrayed as nearly an Oskar Schindler-like character in the way he treated the prisoners whose slave labor stoked his steel foundries during the war. But Poincaré, whose uncle may have died in one of Von Kraus’s labor camps, is not so sure.

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The affable and larger than life Von Kraus now has highly profitable business dealings with world leaders like Idi Amin. When tragedy strikes one of his far-flung, neo-slave labor camps, Liesel is trotted out, the face of genuine contrition, to deliver cash and placate public opinion. She hates the work but adores her father and brother who lead the family businesses.

Von Kraus hires Poincaré to develop a method for extracting precious metals from junk computers. Poincaré discovers a process that can be lethal to workers if care isn’t taken. Should he share what he’s been paid to develop, knowing how often disaster strikes workers on Von Kraus’s projects?

That is just one of many ethical quandaries Poincaré faces in this complex, rich, and fascinating exploration of what happens when good and evil reside under the same roof.

John Searles’s “Help for the Haunted” is the perfect Halloween read for those with a taste for haunted basements, creepy always-smiling dolls, and weirdly dysfunctional families. Fourteen-year-old Sylvie Mason is the good sister. Her mother, an evangelist with the power to calm troubled souls, says that Sylvie has the gift, a light inside her that “burn[s] brighter than others.”

Sylvie’s older sister, Rose, has no such light. Rebellious and disobedient, she seems to her parents to be an evil changeling who has replaced their Rose, one whose twisted soul no prayers or ministrations can return to the path of righteousness.

The novel opens with a phone ringing in the dead of night. Sylvie listens, not needing to hear the words to know that someone is calling for her parents’ help. Only this time the person in need is Rose, who ran away three days earlier. She wants her parents to come to a nearby church and talk to her, perhaps to negotiate a truce in their increasingly fractious relationship.

It’s snowing heavily. Sylvie’s parents bundle her into their car, park across from the church, and go in.

Sylvie doesn’t witness what happens, only its aftermath. And what she claims to have seen becomes key evidence in the arrest of Albert Lynch. He’s a former client of her parents and the father of a troubled young girl whom he left to live with the Masons and who has since disappeared.

The story carries the reader along as our understanding of the saintly, passive Sylvie and nasty Rose become more nuanced. Searles brings the torture of adolescence, the scourge of notoriety, and the pain of being young and different vividly to the page.

For the readers whose tastes run to old-timey, locked-room mysteries with a Sherlockian detective and Watsonian narrator, along with plenty of flim-flam conjuring of the dead, then Michael Nethercott’s debut novel, “The Seance Society,” is right up their not-so-dark alley.

The time is the mid-1950s though it feels downright Victorian. The setting is an estate in Connecticut, the home of wealthy Trexler Lloyd whose crowd-pleasing conjuring supposedly coaxes spirits of the dead to comfort the living. There, Lloyd conducts a séance and unveils the Spectricator, his invention which allows him to communicate with the dead. Only instead of connecting with them, he ends up joining them.

Also in attendance are members of Lloyd’s colorful household. They include his beautiful Spanish-born wife, Constanza; the Mae Westian “Sassafras” Miller, a larger than life cabaret performer; as well as a contingent of stock characters that comprise the household help.

A detective nearing retirement begs young detective Lee Plunkett and his august helpmate, Mr. O’Nelligan, to undertake an investigation of Lloyd’s death. Something seems off about the way the investigation was conducted and the unseemly way Lloyd’s body was so quickly bundled off and cremated. In the end the suspects are gathered together and, as expected, the least likely suspect is revealed to be the killer.

Hallie Ephron can be reached through www.hallieephron .com.
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