Picks and Pans Review: Panama

updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Eric Zencey

It is 1892, and Henry Adams, American philosopher and historian, is roaming the streets of Paris. A young artist he met on a recent trip to Mont-Saint-Michel has vanished. A mutilated corpse lies in the morgue. The coroner has been shot, and when Adams looks for answers in the Latin Quarter, he stumbles upon high-ranking government officials in compromising places.

Zencey, a Goddard College history professor, makes an impressive debut with this literary thriller reminiscent of Caleb Carr's bestseller The Alienist. He deftly conveys a sense of atmosphere—the clatter of horses and carriages, the eerie glow of gaslight—as he craftily escalates the drama.

Adams may never have been a detective in real life, but in Panama he's an intelligent sleuth, following the dangerous trail of legislators who kill in an attempt to hide their role in a failed effort to build the Panama Canal.

Though his style is sometimes stiff, Zencey has created a compelling picture of technology's corrosive effect on morality; his search for the truth nearly a century ago is relevant today. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24)

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