Imagined history, true-life mystery, peculiar island-dwellers, and a most unusual pet dominate these new books.
By Bernard Cornwell
HarperCollins, $25

Richard Sharpe is a soldier’s soldier, an officer commissioned up from the ranks after saving the life of his commanding officer, Arthur Wellesley, who in a few years would be known as the Duke of Wellington.

Though this happened in India, Sharpe does his most celebrated soldiering in Spain, in the adventures that Bernard Cornwell has so de- lightfully chronicled in Sharpe’s Rifles, Sharpe’s Eagle, Sharpe’s
Company, and other novels that do for the early 19th-century land campaigns what Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series does for the sea. Cornwell is a bit less literary and, therefore, a little more accessible. But his books do what good historical fiction must do — bring the period to life, and teach the reader something without making him feel as if he is back in school. On both counts, Cornwell succeeds admirably.

A new Sharpe adventure is always welcome. But the latest will inspire a measure of concern among some loyal readers. Its title, Sharpe’s Trafalgar, prompts the inevitable question: When did Sharpe join the Navy?

Never, it turns out. But the man has a way of being at the right — or, perhaps, wrong — place at exactly the right moment. This time he is on a British warship that just happens to stumble across Nelson’s fleet on the eve of battle. The action is first-rate, and the inevitable meal Sharpe shares with Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson is even better. This is a fine, if improbable, addition to the Sharpe series.

By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, $26

Any hotel could tell a hundred stories. And a down-at-the-heels hotel in a tropical locale … well, we’re into Paul Theroux territory here. World traveler and raconteur Theroux dips into the polyglot melting pot of our 50th state for this immensely entertaining collection of scandals, liaisons, mysteries, and murders — tales you might hear while sitting around the hotel’s Paradise Lost bar sipping a mai tai.

Narrated by the hotel manager, a failed writer from the mainland, the stories have as varied a cast as ever set out for Canterbury or embarked on a Ship of Fools: the fratricidal twins, Wayne and Will; the imperious advice columnist, Madam Ma, and her Oedipal son; the man who can no longer afford his wife; the millionaire with everything; the girl who wants nothing. And hotel owner Buddy, one of those larger-than-life Theroux hero/villains whose weirdness, funny and charming at first, finally turns poisonous.

Is the narrator’s wife, Sweetie, really the product of a liaison between a chambermaid and a former U.S. president? Why does the retired carpenter on the fifth floor hammer and saw away night after night?

As one of the maids remarks: “If you make the bed, you know everything.”

By Candice DeLong with Elisa Petrini
Hyperion, $23.95

Candice DeLong had to fight to become one of the early female FBI agents. A former psychiatric ward nurse, she had the toughness to make it through training with her psyche undamaged, though she ruined a shoulder when a sadistic instructor made her attempt to fire 75 rounds from a shotgun.

But the real bad guys were outside the bureau, and she quickly learned how to spot them and also to catch them. She became a profiler, skilled in using crime evidence to draw a psychological profile of the criminal. She worked some of the FBI’s more famous cases, including the Tylenol murderer and the Unabomber.

DeLong raised a son on her own, which may account for her sensitivity to crime victims and their vulnerability. The book blends real-life crime stories and cautionary advice from society’s “shark fence” as it chronicles DeLong’s success in a historically male domain. Wouldn’t Hoover be surprised.

By Malcolm MacPherson
St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95

A few years ago, motorists on Interstate 25 near Colorado Springs sometimes spotted a cowboy on horseback, a couple of dogs, and an elephant shambling through the sagebrush.

That would have been Bob Norris and his pet pachyderm, Amy, checking fences at his T Cross Ranch. Brake lights flashed, cars veered to the side of the road, and pretty soon there was a traffic jam. Even in the wildest West, you don’t see a cowboy and his elephant every day. But then, Bob Norris is no ordinary cowboy.

Former Marlboro Man and son of a Disney animator turned banker, Norris was, for years, a successful cattle rancher. Then one day an animal dealer rented space in his barn for some baby elephants.

The story, told by a former Newsweek correspondent, follows Amy from Africa, where she is orphaned during a cull of the elephant herd, to Norris’ ranch, where she almost perishes from loneliness. But Norris has a way with animals, and the animal dealer is willing to part with her — for a price. Before long, Amy is happily tagging along like an overgrown puppy. She leads horses around by the reins and cavorts with cowboys in a mud wallow.

But inevitably she outgrows her stall, then the whole barn. Norris has to make some heart-wrenching decisions about finding a better home for Amy. Before he does, however, this is a bighearted story, amazing, strange, and funny.

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