Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Crime Fiction: Saints of the Shadow Bible
by Ian Rankin

Fans of Scottish police sleuth John Rebus will be delighted to learn that he’s once again front and center in Ian Rankin’s brand-new novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion). The book’s title refers to the very first CID team Rebus was assigned to, and the legal tome that allegedly guided their work, the Scottish Criminal Law. But back in the day, their guiding principle was “ignore the law, just get results,” so they made up the rules as they went along. Three decades later their tactics are coming back to haunt them; and with Rankin’s other, more recently introduced protagonist, Inspector Malcolm Fox, on the case, there’s no prize for guessing who’s caught in the middle.

After retiring (in 2007’s Exit Music) and then serving as a civilian consultant to the Lothian and Borders Police, former Detective Inspector Rebus is back in harness, but at a price. He’s taken advantage of a scheme to rejoin the force, but has had to accept a demotion to detective sergeant as part of the bargain. He’s investigating a cold case -- a wife reported missing more than a decade ago -- when he’s called to the scene of a car crash. A Volkswagen Golf has gone off a narrow country road at speed, hitting a tree head-on. Rebus and his now-superior officer, DI Siobhan Clarke, arrive to find that the driver, Jessica Traynor, has already been carted off to a hospital with minor injuries. As a lorry driver prepares to haul away the ruined car, they look over photographs taken by the first officers on the scene. Everything seems normal enough; perhaps the woman had been the victim of road rage, or had simply been distracted at a critical moment. But two things bother Rebus: the photos show one of the woman’s boots in the passenger-side foot well, and the car boot, or trunk, was closed. It had been opened, though, by the time the cops turned up at the crash site.

Arriving at the hospital to interview Jessica, Rebus and Clarke discover that her father has beaten them to her bedside. Owen Traynor is from London, a financier with access to a private plane. He’s understandably protective of his daughter, and anxious that the detectives don’t make more than necessary out of the roadway incident. But he does put them on to both Jessica’s flat-mate and her boyfriend. They leave wondering just who had been at the wheel before the collision. Their take on the situation does not improve when they learn that Owen Traynor has a short fuse: an investment deal in the south had gone sour and an investor had ended up in intensive care after a falling-out with the entrepreneur.

Jessica’s boyfriend turns out to be Forbes McKuskey -- student and son of Patrick McKuskey, the Justice Minister for Scotland and a prominent figure for the Yes side in the upcoming vote for Scottish independence. Both Forbes and Jessica’s flat-mate, Alice Bell, deny knowing anything about Jessica’s crash. But when Forbes’ father is beaten and hospitalized in a coma, suspicion falls on Traynor.

While all of this is going on, Professional Standards officer Malcolm Fox is mulling over his impending reassignment back into the ranks of the detectives he’d spent the past several years investigating. He knew he’d be shunned at best. Not a prospect to relish, then.

Before he leaves, however, Fox has been given one final assignment. Elinor Macari, the Solicitor General for Scotland, has tasked him with looking into a 30-year-old case: a low-level scumbag named Douglas Merchant had been murdered, and a man named Billy Saunders was arrested for the crime by Rebus’ old team. When it was discovered that crucial evidence in that case had been compromised, Saunders had walked, and the senior officer had resigned. Although the rest of the team members have since retired or died, Rebus alone remains on the force.

The whole thing spells trouble for John Rebus. Fox wants his cooperation in the cold case, and his former colleagues, if not exactly friends, expect Rebus to contain the investigation. Rebus is left pondering whether his return to active duty was a good idea after all.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll undoubtedly repeat it again someday: Ian Rankin is a master of layered plotting and nuanced characters, and his riveting dialogue never fails to hold the reader firmly in his grasp. Consider the following barroom exchange between Malcolm Fox and John Rebus:
‘You’re just barely back on the force. Something like this could jeopardize that ...’

‘What you’re saying is, if I help you I can be written out of the story?’

‘You know I can’t make those sorts of promises.’ But Fox’s tone of voice hinted otherwise.

‘And all I’d have to do is grass up some of my oldest friends?’

‘I’m not asking for that.’

‘You’re a piece of work, Fox. And let me tell you something I do know.’ Rebus was sliding out from the pew, getting to his feet. ‘You’re a baw-hair away from having served your time in The Complaints. Means you’ll be back in the fray soon, surrounded by people like me -- fun and games ahead, Inspector. I hope you’re not averse to a bit of ruck and maul ...’

‘Is that a threat?’

Rebus didn’t bother answering. He was sliding his arms into his coat. The pint was where he’d left it, not even half-finished.
No better crime writer exists today. Period. ◊

NOTE: A U.S. edition of Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible is due out in mid-January of next year from Little, Brown.

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Crime Fiction: Long Gone Man by Phyllis Smallman

I must admit to being skeptical when I first learned that Canadian author Phyllis Smallman’s latest literary effort, Long Gone Man (TouchWood Editions), would be a departure from her successful and long-running series set in the Florida Keys and featuring Sherry Travis, a sassy, in-your-face bartender and amateur sleuth. I’d grown accustomed to Smallman’s likeable protagonist and the fine cast of supporting characters who inhabit the Travis tales. Smallman has built a loyal and enthusiastic fan base for her five Sherry Travis novels, and it takes real moxie to branch out with a new tale featuring an untested lead in a radically different setting. I needn’t have worried, though; this savvy author has delivered an original, compelling and, it must be said, altogether darker tale to kick off her exciting new series.

Making her way to an isolated mountaintop on a remote island in southwestern British Columbia, Canada, Singer Brown is on a mission. Years earlier she had been the lead vocalist with Vortex, a rising rock band; then Singer’s lover, Michael, a roadie for the group, had died under mysterious circumstances while they were on tour in Europe. Devastated, Singer dropped out of the band, her life spiraling downward, until, homeless, she had been forced to sing on street corners to survive. Now, driven by desperation, Singer seeks the band’s mountain retreat in search of a bit of cash and a place to hang out for a few days. And nagging in the back of her mind the question remains: Who killed Michael, and why?

The notion of hitting a dead end takes on new meaning when Singer arrives at the rock group’s compound and discovers that the leader of the band, Johnny Vibald, known as “Johnny Vibes,” has just been fatally shot. Johnny’s wife, Lauren, thinks Singer may have committed the crime, while Singer suspects the wife. But realizing that they’ll each be prime suspects in the eyes of the law, these two women finally band together to alibi one other for the murder of the man they both despised.

Singer struggles to imagine who else might have hated Johnny enough to kill him. Besides a few locals, the only other people nearby are a handful of members of the rock group and their lawyer, who’d been having an affair with Johnny’s wife. Complicating issues, the group had been approached by a business group that wanted to develop the island, a move that would have made them all wealthy. Only Johnny -- who held the majority share of the property rights -- opposed the plan.

The logic here is inescapable: If neither Singer nor Lauren killed the aging rock star, then someone else on the island must have. And it does not take Singer long to realize that in the dysfunctional world of this island retreat there is no shortage of people happy that Johnny Vibes is dead.

Long Gone Man marks the launch of a new series in which the lead character is a quirky and vulnerable, yet likeable character. A loner by nature, forced to live on the streets, Singer Brown is both canny and wary, yet retains a compassion for others, along with her belief that most people are basically good. Author Smallman deftly immerses Singer in a world defined by greed, selfishness and suspicion to produce an atmospheric and suspenseful tale that is all too believable.

Fans of her long-running Sherry Travis series will be happy to learn that Smallman, who divides her time between the islands off Vancouver, B.C., and the Florida Keys, is also hard at work on her sixth Sherry Travis novel, The Last Martini.◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Thursday, July 04, 2013

Crime Fiction: Miss Montreal by Howard Shrier

With three cracking good novels already under his belt, Canadian author Howard Shrier has delivered a fourth that will not disappoint his many fans. His debut novel, Buffalo Jump, garnered an Arthur Ellis Award in 2008, and a year later he repeated that achievement with Jump’s sequel, High Chicago. Born and reared in Montreal, Quebec, Shrier began his career as a crime reporter for the Montreal Star in 1979. Maturing as one of recent crime fiction’s shining stars, his latest effort, Miss Montreal (Vintage Canada), takes him back to the place of his youth for a story that will resonate with anyone who knows the city, and will earn Shrier many new followers.

Sammy Adler was not a natural athlete: as a 12-year-old at camp, he was the bane of every baseball coach, his peers scrambling to fill the lineup with other boys. But another camp kid, Jonah Geller, took Sammy under his wing, coaching him in the proper batting stance, how to read a pitcher, the proper swing. Sammy tried to take it all in and adjust his game, but there’s a limit to what one person can teach another. Sammy’s seminal moment came when he hit a line drive into the first baseman’s glove for the game-ending out.

By all rights, Sammy should have been consigned to the Hall of Shame, the subject of cruel jokes that would follow him for the rest of his life. But somehow all of that doesn’t matter when, decades later, Jonah Geller--now a private eye working out of Toronto--suddenly receives a call from Sammy’s grandfather, Arthur Moscoe, telling him that Sammy is dead. He’s been bludgeoned to death, a Star of David carved into his chest.

So opens Miss Montreal, a real corker of a tale.

Although they’d drifted out of touch over the years, Jonah Geller was Sammy’s closest childhood friend. The 83-year-old Moscoe, dying of cancer and unconvinced that Montreal’s finest will bring Sammy’s killers to book, now hires Jonah to investigate Sammy’s murder. Because Jonah can’t turn for help to his usual partner, Jenn Raudsepp--who remains in Toronto, recovering from bullet wounds suffered during their previous case--he instead calls in Dante Ryan, a reformed hit man who travels from Boston to give him a hand. Volatile at the best of times, Ryan is especially unpredictable as he tries to cope with his wife having left him and taken their son with her; but he shows up, bringing with him a small arsenal of weapons and an attitude to match.

The police probe into Sammy’s death is not helped by the fact that one of the detectives on the case is a staunch Francophone who refuses to cooperate with Jonah. As a journalist, Sammy had made his share of enemies. Recently, he’d been working on two stories: the first one about how Afghan immigrants were adapting to Quebec. Jonah questions a young Afghan woman Sammy had interviewed for his story, but she’s evasive. Jonah and Dante leave her company having learned little. When they meet her again, this time away from her father’s shop, they find that they’re being tailed by a couple of Syrian thugs.

The second story Sammy was pursuing focused on an influential right-wing nationalist politician, Laurent Lortie, who seeks to keep Quebec for the Quebeqois--the French-speaking people who comprise the historical core of the province, and who feel that their language and culture are being threatened by the wave of immigrants. That tension dates from the original conflict between the two founding peoples, the French and the English, and persists even 200 years later. Lately, though, the tensions have been ramping up, with threats, beatings and fire-bombings.

How might Sammy’s two story leads have figured into his death? Jonah and Dante must weave their way through the troubled waters of multiethnic Montreal, aided only by a detective who hates Anglos, to thwart a plot with explosive consequences.

With its evocative back-story about two adolescent boys struggling to fit in with summer camp life, Miss Montreal had me hooked from the start. Shrier deftly sets up the reader for the poignant news of Sammy’s demise, and uses that hook to lead us effortlessly into an atmospheric tale that captures glimpses of Jewish Montreal in the 1950s and carries us forward to the changing face of the city today. As James Lee Burke does with Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcel, Shrier offers up a good cop/bad cop team in Jonah Geller and Dante Ryan. He combines that here with a topical plot full of twists and virtually nonstop action. All in all, Miss Montreal is the strongest entry in an already very strong series, and leaves this reader looking forward to Jonah Geller’s next outing. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Crime Fiction: Gods and Beasts by Denise Mina

Of the hundreds of novels I receive each year, I always look forward to the newest one by Denise Mina. Her writing is consistently fresh and compelling, and nobody wraps an important social theme around a challenging and topical plot line better than she does. Mina’s latest effort, Gods and Beasts (Reagan Arthur), will not disappoint her many fans.

This tale begins in a small post office in Glasgow, Scotland. An elderly man is standing in line with his 4-year-old grandson, waiting to mail a parcel, when a masked gunman bursts in, waives an AK-47 pistol about, and orders the customers to lie on the floor. When the gunman picks the grandfather out, the old man hands the boy to a stranger, Martin Pavel, saying only “He’s yours.” Then he turns to help the gunman by holding a canvas bag open for him. When the robber has finished filling it with cash he turns his gun on the old man and shoots him -- not once but 10 times, nearly cutting the man in half as round after round exits his now-lifeless body. Then, with glass and blood and chaos in his wake, the gunman disappears, leaving the boy gripping Martin in terror, until the police arrive.

The case falls on Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow and her partner, Detective Constable Harris, to solve. Beyond the confused accounts of the terrified witnesses and the lifeless body of the old man, they have little to go on. Not least among their challenges, Martin Pavel -- the man given the boy -- is not at all what he seems to be.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg, for across town at nearly the same time two other officers, DC Tamsin Leonard and her partner, DS George Wilder, are on the edge of the city about to end their shift when they receive a call to keep an eye out for an Audi G7, known to be the vehicle of choice for local drug dealers. The owner of that car is wanted in connection with an ongoing investigation.

For very different reasons, both officers have been marginalized from their peers: Wilder because he is simply offensive, Leonard because she is gay. They’d been paired in order to spare other officers from having to deal with them. They both know it, and tolerate each other as the lesser of the various evils they put up with on a daily basis.

Before long they spot the Audi, and light it up. Surprisingly, the driver pulls over and when questioned, seems largely unconcerned about being stopped. Something about his smugness alerts them, and Wilder asks him to open the rear hatch, revealing a panel in the floor. Underneath it they discover a large IKEA bag full of cash, all in 20-pound notes. For this couple of officers, it’s decision time: take the driver in and log the loot, or keep it for themselves and cut him loose. The choice will have consequences that ripple throughout the rest of their lives.

But two plot lines are seldom enough for the complex mind of Denise Mina, and in the more rarefied atmosphere of party politics, across town local MP Kenny Gallagher is facing demons of his own: he’s just been accused of having an affair with a junior member of his staff -- an allegation that could spell the end of both his career and his troubled marriage. Adding fuel to an already considerable fire, a local gangster, Danny McGrath, has offered to help Kenny with his problem, and just to make matters worse, Danny is DS Morrow’s half-brother. Yet another opportunity for corruption to prevail.

As I noted at the outset, one of the many strengths of Mina’s novels is that they address some of the most important social issues underlying contemporary life. This stems from the author’s background as a graduate student in law, and her realization that she could reach many more people through writing intelligent, thoughtful crime fiction about the very same issues that preoccupied her as an academic. From Mina’s first novel in 1998, Garnethill -- which earned her the John Creasey Award for Best First Crime Fiction -- each of her books has focused on some key aspect of law and morality, and the reader comes away with not only a satisfying literary entertainment, but also with an increased awareness of the contours of major moral issues facing society today.

Gods and Beasts -- the third Alex Morrow novel, after Still Midnight (2009) and The End of the Wasp Season (2011) -- is the bleak narrative of a policing system that values paper-pushing administration over the efforts of front-line officers on streets dominated by savvy criminals who know how to exploit the policing system to shape public perceptions. The book is eloquent in its condemnation of a social system on the verge of collapse, a political system that imposes urban blight on the powerless while serving the desires of craven politicians, and a social system that goes through the motions of caring about those on the margins, but which is incapable of responding to their actual needs. Mina’s tale takes its name from a passage in Aristotle, in which the philosopher states the central tension confronting civilized society regardless of time or place: “Those who live outside the city walls, and are self-sufficient, are either Gods or Beasts.” The recurring question of Mina’s novel is, which will prevail? And the ending is provocative, to say the least.

All the strengths that one could wish for in a crime novel -- literate writing, a strong sense of setting, nuanced characters, layered plotting that threads its way through the characters’ personal and professional lives, and a theme that resonates with readers -- are present in Gods and Beasts. This is a fine, flawless novel. Every page is fresh and compelling, and will leave readers eagerly awaiting her next one. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crime Fiction: Lehrter Station by David Downing

A classic cat-and-mouse game -- except it’s no game. David Downing’s latest novel, Lehrter Station (Soho Crime), chronicles days full of promise, punctuated by nights full of peril, in a nation emerging from war and pulled in many directions at once.

November 1945. World War II has ended, and people on both sides of the conflict struggle to put the events of the previous five years behind them and rebuild their lives. In London, journalist and freelance spy John Russell is on the move again, trying to piece together the remains of his own life with his German girlfriend, the actress Effi Koenen. But his plans take an unexpected turn when he is tracked down by Yevgeny Shchepkin, a Soviet NKVD agent he has worked with in the past, and who lays claim once more to his clandestine services. Russell had made a Faustian bargain to secure his family’s safety, based on his promise to work for Moscow again sometime in the future, and now that bill has come due.

So Russell returns to Germany with Effi, but not before striking a deal with the Americans to work as a double agent. Aware of his previous dealings with the Russians, the Americans are skeptical: where do Russell’s real loyalties -- if he has any -- lie?

For her part, Effi hopes to revive her stalled acting career in post-war Germany, but like her partner, her wartime past dogs her, and she must wrestle with the occupation powers to prove she was not a Nazi collaborator. Neither of these characters, though, is prepared for the tensions that are emerging between the occupying powers, or for the shadowy culture of post-war Germany on the street level, where deceit and treachery are the order of the day. Russell will weave his way between black-marketers and refugees on the run, European Jews headed for a new homeland and ex-Nazis also scurrying for the safety of a new life. It is a rich storytelling mixture, and reveals the full measure of the turmoil of war.

Lehrter Station effectively captures the trauma of a defeated and dislocated people, some of them good, some bad, all trying to make their way in an uncertain world. Relying heavily on the back story of Downing’s four previous novels in this series, Lehrter Station is an evocative, penetrating account, impeccably researched, revealing the author’s trademark meticulous attention to detail. It will appeal to fans of serious fiction about the chaotic days following the end of the Second World War, as well as to those simply in search of a cracking good read. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Crime Fiction: Beach Strip by John Lawrence Reynolds

Although there is no shortage of women authors whose protagonists are male, the reverse is seldom true. The Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin once told me that it was difficult for male writers to write convincingly from a woman’s perspective. We discussed why that was, and decided, somewhat disturbingly, that in many cases men simply weren’t as perceptive as women. We moved on from that dark thought, and let the issue drop.

But it looks as though in at least one case, we were wrong. After an almost 10-year hiatus from writing crime fiction, Canadian author John Lawrence Reynolds has turned out a new novel, Beach Strip (HarperCollins Canada), and it’s a winner. It features a woman as protagonist -- and it’s told from a first-person point of view. For good measure it contains not one, but two finely etched portraits of sisters, very different women, each convincingly done.

Gabe Marshall is a police detective, and after he and wife Josie have each put failed previous marriages behind them, they are trying to carve out a measure of happiness in a modest beach cottage on the shore of Lake Ontario that serves as their refuge from a troubled world. Or they were, until one horrible evening when Josie returns home to find officers swarming over the site, marking off a grassy section of the beach with yellow tape, and inside that Stygian landscape, Gabe Marshall lying among the grass with a bullet in his brain.

His death seems clearly a suicide, and Josie’s immediate thought is that somehow Gabe discovered that she was having an affair with one of his fellow officers. When her sister from Vancouver, British Columbia, descends on Josie to help, she notices an expensive ring that Gabe had recently given Josie. It’s way beyond what a policeman could plausibly afford. Josie is evasive, uncertain how Gabe had acquired it. Unspoken between these sisters is the question: Had Gabe been on the take, and was the ring somehow implicated in his death?

Despite questions from the investigating officers and a media scrum that lays waste to her privacy, Josie somehow makes it through the next few days. When the bullet that killed Gabe is traced to his own gun, and paraffin tests reveal that he fired the weapon, Josie still denies that it was suicide.

Refusing a departmental ceremony, she has Gabe’s remains cremated, and then takes his ashes past a nearby drawbridge to a canal, intending to return them to the natural environment they both loved. She hears a man’s voice telling her he knows what happened, but the drawbridge horn sounds, warning that the bridge is about to be raised; it almost knocks her over with its force, and causes her to drop the box containing Gabe’s remains. When she recovers, the man who spoke to her is nowhere to be found. She runs home to regain her bearings, and only later returns to recover the box of ashes. But she finds more than she expects: the body of a man at the foot of the canal, his head crushed by the bridge’s massive concrete counterweight. Is this a macabre accident, or did the man really have something to tell Josie about her husband’s death?

Before her quest is over, Josie will fight a police department that has made up its mind about Gabe’s death, and be forced to enter the shadowy world of his work. While getting to the bottom of things she will grapple with a druggie who shows up at her front door and a prowler in her backyard, and she will confront a local crime boss who is either her worst enemy or a valued friend. And in the process, Josie Marshall will learn that betrayal takes many forms, sometimes that of the person closest to you.

Author Reynolds is a seasoned professional, and it shows. A former president of the Crime Writers of Canada, and a two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel, he has half a dozen crime novels under his belt. Beach Strip is an engrossing tale, with a strong sense of place and characters that are both believable and engaging. Nicely paced, with several twists and a story line that will hold the reader’s attention, it marks the welcome return of an accomplished writer to Canadian crime fiction. Let’s hope there are many more of Reynolds’ books in the offing. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Crime Fiction: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor is crime writer Tana French’s compelling tale about the horrific multiple-murder of a family in rural Ireland. But if gore is not your thing, don’t be put off: the crime has already occurred by the story’s opening, and Broken Harbor -- released earlier this month in Canada, and due out in the States on July 24 -- is very much a police procedural married to a classic whodunnit. Its talented author will keep you guessing until the closing pages.

The protagonist here is a 10-year veteran of the Dublin Murder Squad, Detective Sergeant Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, who’s been paired with a rookie partner, Richie Curran. Richie isn’t just wet behind the ears; he’s so damp he’s threatening to inundate the squad room by his mere presence. Kennedy has to lead him through the fine points not covered in the policing course: how to dress while on the job, why he should choose a specific type of car from the motor pool, how to carry himself on the ground with other officers, and how to handle witnesses in order to get the most information from them. But the case at hand isn’t only an opportunity to train Richie; it’s also a chance to see whether he’s up to the mark, capable of handling the trauma and complexities of serious policing.

Kennedy doesn’t need these distractions; he’s got enough on his plate as it is. A wanker in the squad is jealous of Kennedy and out to make him look bad, and his boss, Superintendent O’Kelly, believes in giving the people on his team enough rope to hang themselves. Kennedy has been handed this family-murder case because he has one of the highest solve-rates in the unit. His success is based on his belief that good police work doesn’t only stem from training, but is primal. “When I wonder whether there was any point to my day,” he says, “I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did.”

He’s about to get his chance. In a coastal housing estate of half-vacant, jerry-built homes an hour’s drive north from Dublin, a grisly crime has been unearthed: Patrick Spain and his two young children have been brutally stabbed to death. Spain’s wife, the sole surviving member of their immediate family, has been left in critical condition, stabbed multiple times and now barely clinging to life. The bodies of the children show no signs of a struggle; they seem to have been murdered in their beds while they slept.

Pat Spain had been unemployed for months, a victim of the recession that has swept across Ireland. Although he was forced to give up his family’s expensive car, he somehow found the money to stage an elaborate birthday party for his daughter. Everything in this murder investigation points to a family member being responsible, and since he was on the verge of poverty and trying desperately to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, the father is the odds-on favorite for the crimes.

But there are anomalies at the crime scene. It looks as though someone has been through the house, searching for something; and files on the family computer shows signs of having been hacked by an intruder, someone who was not a member of the family. Coupled with evidence that someone had previously been watching the Spains, this case is proving to be far from simple.

And there’s an elephant in the room. Years earlier, Kennedy’s own family had taken their holidays near the scene of the crime, and his younger sister, Dina, witnessed their mother’s suicide in the coastal waters close by. Now bipolar and off her meds, Dina’s vivid memories of that day and her out-of-control behavior threaten to jeopardize the case and even end Kennedy’s career.

In what must be a literary record, most of the first 200 pages of Broken Harbor focus on the Murder Squad’s initial visit to the crime scene -- constituting a tour de force of police procedures. But it’s not only a wealth of well-researched detail that’s on offer here; grabbing attention with a first-person point of view and a driving narrative voice, author French strips her readers of their detachment, drawing them into the vortex of this dark, but all-too-believable, tale.

Perfectly paced, with nuanced characters set against a backdrop of heart-rending conflict and dialogue that reads as though you’re a fly on the wall, Broken Harbor shows once again that Tana French is not only one of the most assured crime writers of our times, but one of the best emerging writers in any genre. A winner of the Edgar, Anthony, Barry and Macavity awards for her first novel, 2007’s In the Woods, in her fourth outing French continues to exhibit the freshness, quality writing and masterful plotting that her readers have come to expect. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Crime Fiction: The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

By the time he died in January 2012, British crime writer Reginald Hill had earned legions of fans worldwide for his engaging novels (and long-running TV series) featuring two improbably paired police detectives. Andy Dalziel (known as “Fat Andy,” but only behind his back) is opinionated, outspoken, sometimes rude and almost always politically incorrect; his university-educated, liberally oriented ally, Peter Pascoe, spends much of his time trying to minimize the damage his boss can inflict merely by walking through a room.

Hill was no one-trick pony, though. Given the appeal of his odd-couple series, it’s all too easy to overlook his other writing -- in particular his 15 standalone novels written over a period of 40 years. Readers who venture into this wooded area will be rewarded with a varied range of novels that encompass football hooliganism, the English Civil War, spy thrillers, collaborators during the Second World War, psychological thrillers, and in his final published work -- The Woodcutter (released last year in the States) -- the tortuous path of revenge.

Wilfred “Wolf” Hadda is, by any standard, a singular man. Rising from modest roots as a woodcutter’s son, he has carved out a successful business worth millions. He has homes in Holland Park, Devon, New York, Barbados and Umbria, and a private jet with which to reach them. Knighted for his business achievements, he is married to a vivacious and intelligent woman from a wealthy family, to the envy of all.

But without warning, one day his life suddenly comes crashing down around him. In the early hours of the morning police force their way into Hadda’s house, armed with a warrant and accompanied by a phalanx from the press. His computer is seized, and when the police find kiddie porn on it, he is arrested. Wolf Hadda is accused of being a pedophile, and a credit-care trail indicates payments to hotels and Internet porn sites -- adding to the increasing mountain of evidence incriminating Wolf. The press have a field day, and Hadda is disgraced.

As bad as that is, once convicted and imprisoned he finds his ordeal is only beginning. While in prison Wolf is faced with the death of his daughter, followed by his wife divorcing him to marry his former lawyer. Adding to his miseries, Wolf’s father suffers a stroke, and his best friend seems curiously detached from his tragedies. Wolf Hadda seems to be a contemporary Job, totally friendless in an unforgiving world.

Always a force to be reckoned with, and pushed to the brink in a series of events that would destroy most men, his years in prison have hardened and honed Wolf Hadda. Now he strives to convince prison psychiatrist Alva Ozigbo that he has become a new man; but first she must understand the old Wolf, and his history is far more complex, and far darker, than she can possibly imagine. Their relationship becomes a macabre dance of their intellects: Has Wolf actually reformed, or is he a consummate con artist? And is Alva up to the task of deciding which is which?

At last, after serving seven years in prison, Hadda is paroled, with only two thoughts on his mind: to learn the truth, and to exact revenge. Who did this to him, and why? How can he balance the scales of justice?

A cracking psychological thriller on a par with the best of them, The Woodcutter is also a sumptuous, layered novel about the complex interplay of forces that shape a troubled boy into a man. Wolf Hadda is dangerous, but no mere psychopath; think The Silence of the Lambs, but with the menace much more understated, and a protagonist with, er, much more flesh on his bones.

Hill’s own literary allusions can at times be maddening, seemingly intrusive to his story line; but they are unfailingly provocative, taking the reader in unexpected directions. The various plot lines converge as this book nears its climax, carrying the reader along effortlessly. The Woodcutter is, in short, a fine work, and a fitting grace note to one of the most accomplished crime-writing careers in recent history. Rest in peace, Reginald Hill. You did yourself proud. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence, Crime Time and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Crime Fiction: Breakdown by Sara Paretsky

(Editor’s note: The following piece comes from Jim Napier, a Quebec resident and newspaper columnist. His book reviews have been featured in several Canadian papers and on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Crime Time, Reviewing the Evidence, and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.)

Chicago-based crime writer Sara Paretsky has long dominated the contemporary hard-boiled private-eye genre with fast-paced tales featuring her indefatigable, often headstrong sleuth, V.I. Warshawski. With more brass than a two-dollar watch and an attitude that would wear down a KGB interrogator, V.I. is a one-person wrecking crew, cutting through the carefully constructed edifices that shield bad people in high places, and leaving destruction, but also light, in her wake.

In Breakdown (Putnam), V.I. is summoned by her cousin Petra to find a group of seven pre-teens who’ve gone missing. Warshawski soon finds herself in an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Chicago in the midst of a summer storm and (if you’ll excuse the expression) the dead of night. Wearing a sodden party frock and grungy trainers, the 50-something P.I. is in no mood for being messing with when she runs across those seven youngsters holding a vampire ritual and trying to call up Camilla, Queen of the Dead. The kids get more than they bargained for when they stumble upon a corpse impaled on a piece of rebar and lying on a slab, the dead man’s blood still fresh. Making matters worse, someone has heard the commotion and called the cops. V.I. manages to get the kids away from the crime scene and back to one of their parent’s apartment, but not without incident: one of them claims to have seen someone, likely the killer. Even more disturbingly, another member of the group lost her cell phone in the cemetery: the girl may have photographed the killer, and if so, her phone could be used to track her down.

Undaunted by a little mud and murder, V.I. finally makes her way to the ballroom event where she’d been headed before receiving Petra’s frantic call. The object of attention is Wade Lawlor, doyen of the political right and host of a media-dominating TV show on the Global Entertainment Network. Lawlor has the public’s ear, and his word can make or break anyone with political ambitions. He’s hitched his wagon to local senatorial candidate Helen Kendrick, another right-winger, whose fortunes stem from her husband’s corporate interests. Lawlor has supported a group that, among other right-wing endeavors, disputes President Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship, and he and Warshawski are light-years apart in their thinking. They trade thinly veiled insults, and before long V.I. has made yet another important enemy.

V.I. is attending this ballroom function at the request of Murray Ryerson, a journalist with whom she’s worked on a number of investigative pieces. Murray’s latest cause is the plight of the mentally ill, both on and off the street. The project piques V.I.’s interest, not least because she has a good friend from her college days who has spent most of her own life battling mental issues. When V.I. learns that Lawlor helped to axe Ryerson’s investigative series before it even got off the ground, her hackles are raised. Lawlor’s favorite pastime is washing other people’s laundry in public. Does the media mogul himself have something to hide?

Despite its cosmopolitan air, the Windy City is really just one big -- if not always happy -- family, and V.I. soon discovers that the victim in the cemetery has ties to the law firm presided over by her own ex-husband. Adding further to the rapidly expanding fog of conflicting interests, one of the girls she found at the cemetery is the daughter of Sophie Durango, who’s running for the same senatorial seat sought by Lawlor darling Helen Kendrick. When Lawlor goes after Durango on his show, Warshawski decides it’s time to get involved.

In Breakdown, author Paretsky weaves a wide-ranging tale involving death in an abandoned graveyard, the all-too-cozy relationship between politicians and the media, and the plight of the mentally ill into a single fast-paced plot. In the hands of a lesser writer this ambitious project might well have degenerated into a tangled skein of storytelling threads, but Paretsky pulls it off in trumps. Breakdown is a timely yarn, given the current electoral circus in the United States, and Paretsky’s political arrows strike all too close to home.

Like her plucky protagonist, Sara Paretsky has lost none of her edge.

READ MORE:The Lady Speaks Her Mind,” by Jim Napier (Spinetingler Magazine).

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