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Historical Mysteries

The Damascened Blade, Barbara Cleverly, Delta, $12.00.

This is the third and strongest novel in Barbara Cleverly's delightful Joe Sandilands series, set in 1922 India. This author is almost overly gifted - she's adept at setting a scene, a time, and a place; she's wonderful at characterization; and every plot, so far, is full of truly clever twists and turnabouts that leave your head spinning by the end of the book. The only author I can really compare her to is Peter Lovesey, another writer whose skill from a pure storytelling level is almost unequaled. Because this novel is set in Afghanistan it seems especially timely; even though the story takes place in 1922, there's a real sense that there might be much unchanged in Afghani culture between 1920 and 2004. Certainly the landscape itself hasn't changed, and it's an integral part of the plot.

A gruesome prologue sets the scene for a compelling story - twelve years earlier, we (as readers) see a young British officer unable to rejoin his squad brutally slain by Afghani soldiers. Twelve years later we join the same British base in the Afghan hills as the edge of the frontier. Joe Sandilands of Scotland Yard is going there to visit his old friend and wartime companion, James Lindsay, now commander at Gor Khatri. Joe's "vacation" is complicated when various other visitors join him - a brash young American, Lily; a Pathan Prince, and an assortment of other British colonials, who might seem very familiar to anyone who's ever read an E.M. Forester novel. When the Prince is found dead, Joe and James are given a week by the Afghans to solve his murder or else an ugly war will erupt.

Joe's inquiry takes him off the base with a handpicked group into the Afghani hills - as we've recently read in the news, they are dotted with caves and secret hiding places - even whole villages - that can't be seen by planes overhead. The feeling of tension, racial and otherwise, of two different cultures colliding, paired with the descriptions of both the beauty and the desolation of the Afghan countryside make this an absolutely compelling read. Because Cleverly has combined this with a sharp whodunit - a story she keeps gleefully twisting this way and that - this book is one of my favorites of the year. Any writer who takes such pure, evident joy in what she does deserves, in turn, to be read and enjoyed by many readers.

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