Books: Keeping Up with the Bones

THE CENTURY OF THE DETECTIVE by Jurgen Thorwald. 500 pages. Harcourt, Brace & World. $8.95.

On June 19, 1892, in a sleepy little fishing village in Argentina, two small children were found in bed with their heads bashed in. The news traveled slowly, and three weeks passed before the provincial police inspector, a man named Alvarez, arrived at the scene of the crime. Clueless after a search of several hours, he turned to leave the hut—and saw on the door, dramatized by a splash of sunlight, the blood-brown print of a human thumb. Alvarez...