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The Wire In The Blood by Val McDermid
Published by HarperCollins at £16.99 on 03 November 1997
Val McDermid's THE MERMAIDS SINGING won the 1996 CWA The Macallan Gold Dagger. Dr Tony Hill, a Home Office criminal profiler, was at the centre of that novel, and he returns in this one, still psychologically scarred from his experiences in the previous book. Now heading the National Profiling Task Force, he is training a carefully selected team of CID officers in a Yorkshire town. One of these aspiring profilers, DC Shaz Bowman, working on an exercise that uses real-life cases, suddenly glimpses a scarcely believable solution to the disappearance of dozens of teenage girls up and down the country up during the last few years.
To her, at least, it seems all too possible that they have been murdered by Jacko Vance, the former athlete who is now one of Britain's best-loved TV personalities. Then one of Hills' students is brutally murdered - and the local police are all too willing to put Hill and other members of the Task Force at the head of their list of suspects.
Much of the story is about the succeeding battle of wills - between Vance on the one hand and Hill and his youthful team on the other. This is a story where the hunter can become the hunted, where every hour brings the likelihood of another murder even closer. Hill, assisted by his former colleague Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan, are up against a frighteningly plausible adversary, a man whose celebrity is an essential part of his armour.
THE WIRE IN THE BLOOD shows how far crime fiction has matured. The depth of the research is matched by the quality of the writing; and the book is fuelled by an underlying compassion and sense of outrage. By allowing us to get to know, and like, some of Vance's victims before they die, McDermid creates murders which have an impact far removed from the insipid blood sheddings of Mayhem Parva. The stark honesty of the book's ending demonstrates McDermid's commitment to her characters and her story. The result is an excellent crime novel, highly recommended.
Bad Monday by Annette Roome
Published by HarperCollins at £16.99 on 20 October 1997
In her third novel, Annette Roome returns to the chaotic personal and professional life of her provincial journalist, Chris Martin. Now free of her lecherous husband, she is shacked up with her boyfriend, not to mention her kids. Her job on the Tipping Herald is rarely characterised by moments of excitement, so she welcomes with enthusiasm the opportunity to interview Rick Monday, a reformed, middle-aged rock star.
Monday was once Chris's idol. The interview, though interesting, is soon swamped by the high drama of its sequel: the following day Monday is found stabbed with an ornamental paper knife in the study of his Victorian mansion. There are signs that he disturbed a burglar at work. Oblivious of personal danger, Chris pursues a sprightly investigation. By the end of it, needless to say, retired rock stars and other citizens of Tipping can sleep at peace in their beds at night.
The narrative is populated with a motley cast of eccentric locals and bumbling policemen. This is comic crime, bearing very little relation to reality. It has a pleasantly old-fashioned quality - there are shades of Colin Watson and Edmund Crispin. Its most endearing feature is the wry, self-deprecating humour of its heroine-narrator: the triumphs and disasters of Chris's domestic life have that distinctive ring of authenticity.
Fear of the Dog by Neil Tidmarsh
Published by Signet at £5.99 on 21 October 1997
The narrator of this dark and interesting novel is Nicholas Todd, a promising young artist whose career has been lucratively nurtured by an influential gallery owner, Tony Acton. Unknown to the rest of the world, however, Nick has underwritten his success by making a Faustian bargain with Acton, a bargain which has sown the seed of a profound hatred. Tidmarsh gradually reveals that Nick has another, even stronger reason to hate Acton. The gallery owner, Nick knows, is little better than a manipulative sadist; so Nick decides to kill him.
Providence appears to favour Nick when Acton asks him to look after his Kent manor house for a few days. One of Nick's duties is to feed Acton's beloved Himalayan mastiffs (like 'wolves on anabolic steroids'). Nick, it so happens, has a deep-seated fear of dogs, and these are the sort of dogs which would terrify anyone with an ounce of intelligence.
The story unfolds from there. Tidmarsh evokes the expertise and intrigues of the London art world with splendid plausibility. The plot develops a dark Hitchcockian inevitability shot with ambiguity. The second half of the book does not altogether live up to the promise of the first, and some may find the echoes from Greek mythology a little heavy-handed. But even these drawbacks are largely redeemed by the elegantly ironic twist at the end. All in all, this is a strikingly unusual first novel, well worth searching out.
Road Rage by Ruth Rendell
Hutchinson £16.99 September 1997
ROAD RAGE is the seventeenth Wexford Mystery, and the Chief Inspector's powers show no sign of waning. Nor do those of his creator. Work has just started on a controversial by-pass around Kingsmarkham. The new road will slash through a precious rural environment. Opposition to the scheme ranges from the polite and democratic members of KABAL, whose members include Wexford's wife Dora, to weirder, wilder people to whom protest is a way of life and for whom the interests of the environment are paramount. Then the decomposing body of a young woman is found in the path of the bulldozers.
But worse - as far as Wexford is concerned - is still to come: eco-terrorists seize a group of hostages, one of whom is Dora Wexford. To make matters worse, there is a curious link between the two cases.
The novel is vintage Rendell. The story twists, turns and finally, scorpion-like, bites its own tail. It shows to the full this author's eye for topical and emotive issues and her ability to chart the currents and hidden rocks of our society. Above all, her characters, even the minor ones, have the rare ring of authenticity. The result is subtle, sensitive and intelligent - a worthy addition to an excellent series.
Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter
Serpent's Tail £7.99
Who or what is Rhode Island Red?
That is the central question of this witty first novel. Nan is black, almost six feet tall, and she plays saxophone on the streets of New York for a living. ('Actually, I don't play sax. It's more like I noodle.') Her boyfriend Walter has recently walked out of her life because he feels that busking is no way for a woman with a Masters degree in French to make a living. Maybe he has a point: when Nan impulsively offers the hospitality of her apartment to a fellow busker, he promptly gets himself murdered in her kitchen. To make matters worse, he turns out to be an undercover cop.
From this promising beginning, the story mushrooms out. Why has her unlucky visitor left a small fortune in cash, wrapped in two used socks, hidden in the horn of Nan's saxophone?
Should Nan hand the money into the police or spend it on herself and her friends?
Why is everyone so curious about the late, great Charlie Parker?
And why does Walter, a man with his eye firmly on the main chance, suddenly want to get married?
The result is sparking crime novel with a strong cast of gangsters, cops and street people. Nan's ebullience is unquenchable, and she has a neat line in repartee.
It's churlish to cavil, but perhaps Nan is a little too perfect for the part she plays. Since V.I.Warshawski hit the streets of Chicago, we have had a great many feisty, awesomely competent heroines with a penchant for Marlovian one-liners. Wouldn't it be nice, just for a change, to have a heroine who's small, shy and afraid of spiders?
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