Chow, Clues, and a Soviet Pop Idol 

This month, our reviewers tackle mysteries, big eaters, and defection.

Comrade Rockstar
By Reggie Nadelson
Walker & Company, $14.95

Middling country-pop singer Dean Reed led a life infinitely more interesting than his little-heard (and apparently hopelessly mediocre) music. How many other failed American teen idols of the early '60s went on to not only become stars in South America and the former Soviet Union, but also live and work behind the Iron Curtain? None, which makes the story of his strange journey fascinating, even if Nadelson puts a little too much of her own quixotic search into the narrative. The author's interest in Reed's saga was sparked by a 1986 profile on 60 Minutes and his mysterious drowning near his East Berlin home six weeks later. She gradually tracked down not only his All-American roots and failed bid for Hollywood stardom, but also translators, film producers, ex-wives, and groupies. But no one she spoke with could really answer the big question: Was Reed's quasidefection a sincere reflection of his political beliefs, or a way to snag the celebrity that would have been impossible to attain at home? — Richie Unterberger

Horsemen of the Esophagus
By Jason Fagone
Crown, $24

This first-person examination of competitive-eating culture features exhaustive reporting and research that, though long-winded at times, is otherwise thoroughly fascinating. Regurgitating the epic tales of chomp champs such as Coondog, El Wingador, Eater X, and Takeru Kobayashi — the Japanese wiener-eating whiz who drank his own hot-dog vomit to beat San Jose's Joey Chestnut at this year's Coney Island championship — Fagone shows what makes this fledgling, self-identified sport so uniquely American: from the Stars and Stripes painted above the bare genitals of Shaving Kate at Wing Bowl in Philadelphia to the "God Bless America" Coondog roars after winning a hot-dog-eating contest in Tokyo, to the Amish boy flaunting a pinup photo of a football cheerleader wearing a bra at a Pennsylvania shoofly-pie-eating match. Through its detailing of stomach-stretching techniques to methods of dealing with all of the inevitable excrement, this book is really about man's proverbial search for meaning. — David Krantz

Snakeskin Shamisen
By Naomi Hirahara
Delta, $12

When it comes to detectives, we thought we'd seen it all: old-lady detectives, monocled-aristocrat detectives, drinking-during-the-day detectives, Indian-reservation detectives, and even dress-like-a-bum-and-talk-funny detectives. But in her protagonist Mas Arai, Hirahara has given life to a new breed: the monosyllabic Japanese-gardener detective. Perhaps the closest parallel to Arai — a 72-year-old, 62-inch-tall gambling fiend and Hiroshima survivor — is Lieutenant Columbo, portrayed by Peter Falk in the '70s TV show. But while that shabby inspector gave villains a false sense of security by dressing like a Greyhound-station denizen and talking like Falk, Arai doesn't say much at all. But that's not to say he isn't thinking. In fact, Hirahara deftly guides us through the subconscious of the crusty gardener as he weaves together complex impressions from his difficult past and the baffling crimes he informally investigates before he speaks out loud with such exclamations such as, "I go eat!" Its plot isn't quite as gripping as its wonderful characters, but this is still a dandy read. It's also a mini-language lesson; in fact, sometimes there's so much Japanese on the page that it can drive you a little kuru-kuru-pa. — Joe Eskenazi

The Case of Madeleine Smith
By Rick Geary
ComicsLit, $15.95

Geary's dual fetishisms — the 19th century and cruel murder — have joined up in his latest graphic novel. The cover shows all you need to know: a glassy-eyed Victorian woman dressed in red pours a cup of scalding tea. As it turns out, the tea is laced with rat poison meant not for a rodent but rather for Madeleine Smith's fiancé. "Like all such 'finished' young ladies," Geary writes, "Madeleine merely waited for a suitable offer of marriage." And such an offer seemed just within reach when Emile l'Angelier, a dapper and romantic Frenchman, whisked her into a life of secret letters and nighttime trysts. But when Madeleine's father became aware of the situation and ordered the affair broken off, the impressionable young woman decided to say farewell to her lover in a unique way: with arsenic. Grotesque Victorian imagery prospers under Geary's pen: His characters come out looking as jagged and peculiar as their actions. An odd combination of maps, family trees, and thought balloons make for an elegant comic, while the chapters give the solid feel of a novella. Geary has produced a short, entertaining read that will appeal to any fan of Holmes or Poirot. — Nicholas Casey


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