07/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ian McEwan Is England's Best Writer. His New Books Disappoint. His First Books Thrill. So Go Back.

Atonement was the high point.

Saturday was a good idea, but the last half is ludicrous --- a Lifetime movie plot.

You'd never know of On Chesil Beach if England's most famous fiction writer had not been its author.

And Solar, his new book, has --- ha, ha, ha --- a scientist's penis falling off in the cold; why am I in no rush to care about it?

If you've just started reading Ian McEwan --- or if you've read "Atonement" and want to read more --- the direction to look is back. In the 1980s and 1990s, McEwan wrote a series of novels that made his reputation. They're spooky, crisply written and sharply observed --- and though they're short, they're unforgettable.

I'm thinking of Amsterdam and The Cement Garden, but mostly I'm thinking of The Comfort of Strangers [for the Kindle edition], which, in just 128 pages, takes you from a peaceful vacation in Venice down the highway of menace into --- but let me not spoil the "fun".

Colin and Mary. Longtime lovers, not married. On a long vacation in Venice.

"They dutifully fulfilled the many tasks of tourism the ancient city imposed."

"They passed many hours searching for 'ideal' restaurants."

"And with each step the city would recede as they locked tighter into each other's presence."

If you have traveled with a lover, you've been there. Because travel focuses two people on shared experience --- away from home, with no obligations, we look outward but turn inward.

Colin and Mary have been together for some years and no longer have a great passion. A puff of marijuana, and they have sex, but "the pleasure was in its unhurried friendliness, the familiarity of its rituals and procedures, the secure precision-fit of limbs and bodies, comfortable, like a cast returned to its mold." Arguments? They're conducted in silence.

This is not an unpleasant vacation for Colin and Mary --- they're each other's comfortable shoes.

Then they get lost and meet Robert. Black shirt, open to the waist. A "thick pelt of chest hair." A "gold imitation razor blade" on a chain around his neck. He leads them to a bar he owns. And they begin "to experience the pleasure, unique to tourists, of finding themselves in a place without tourists, of making a discovery, finding somewhere real."

Robert is forceful, and off they go to his home, where they meet his wife Caroline. Who has some interesting views about love: "By 'in love' I mean you'd do anything for the other person, and.... And you'd let them do anything to you."

Outta there! But back at the hotel, the vacation has changed for Colin and Mary --- they can't get enough of one another. One day. Two. Three. Four days in the hotel room, and it's all sex, talking about sex, sharing fantasies, but mostly, doing it, over and over. And you just know that something about Robert and Caroline set this in motion, and that Mary and Colin are going to see them again before they go....

If you have a problem with sex and depravity, this is so not the book for you. But if you're willing to be disturbed --- even aroused --- by ideas and acts far removed from everything you know, dive in.

Let me phrase a consumer warning in other terms. When Paul Schrader was casting the movie of "Comfort of Strangers," he chose Rubert Everett and Natasha Richardson as Colin and Mary. He cast Helen Mirren as Caroline. And as Robert? Christopher Walken. Need I say more?

[Cross-posted from]