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In our pages: Conspiracy theories, Walter Mosley and mutinous women

March 21, 2010 | 12:30 pm

In today's book pages, paranoia takes off. Author Howard Hampton looks at "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History" by David Aaronovitch and "Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia" by Francis Wheen. Aaronovitch does a fine job debunking conspiracy theories, Hampton says, but "his peevish, plodding common sense is hardly a match for the burning near-religiosity that not only makes a Communion wafer of JFK's assassination, but also extends to the overdose death of one-time Kennedy paramour Marilyn Monroe." Wheen, he says, "more effectively captures how conspiracy theories and botched conspiracies such as Watergate entered the collective psyche."

A psychic uneasiness extended into the fiction reviewed this week. Tod Goldberg was impressed by James Hynes' novel "Next," featuring an obsessive 50-year-old who had "an amorphous fear without discernible boundaries."

...at first "Next" seems to be just an exceptionally well-written comic novel about middle age. But with great subtlety and nuance, Hynes begins to move the narrative into deeper, more compelling territory until the reader comes to find that Kevin isn't merely looking for sex, he's looking for a reason for his life, an order to his mistakes, a compelling set of answers to the questions he's avoided addressing: Whom does he love? What does he really fear? What is it all worth? Did he get what he wanted from this life?

Sarah Weinman enjoys Walter Mosley's "Known to Evil," his second Leonid Trotter McGill mystery:

Like the Easy Rawlins novels, Mosley's new detective canvas informs us about what it means to be a man of endless struggle, even knowing that "once you've seen the battlefield, you can't pretend that it doesn't exist."

Ella Taylor finds Lionel Shriver's novel "So Much for That" to be "gleefully mutinous":

Careening giddily among realism, horror and farce, "So Much for That" is an angry black comedy about the heartlessness of (could it be more timely?) the American healthcare system. Shriver ... writes in precise, dynamic prose that reads almost like literary journalism ... if anyone's going to perk up the often-limp niceness of the women's novel it's Shriver, who has no use for earth mothers or noble victims.

Which sounds not unlike the work of Caroline Blackwood; I reviewed her posthumous collection, "Never Breathe a Word":

Most of Blackwood's characters ... inhabit danger zones of keen intelligence, amused manipulation and something else -- self-indulgence, or maybe self-importance. They are sometimes funny, unwittingly revealing and rarely nice. At the core, they're out of sync with underlying societal assumptions, women who are unselfconsciously and dominantly at the center of their worlds.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Illustration: Jason Greenberg / For The Times