Fatal Remedies by
hbk out February 99
Published by Macmillan
Singing the Sadness by Reginald Hill Fatal Remedies by Donna Leon Dead Souls by Ian Rankin Bloody London by Reggie Nadelson
Like Aristotelian tragedy and the blues, most crime stories stick to a formula. There are crimes, usually murder, leading to investigations, and at length to resolutions and a form of justice. But these four novels illustrate that in the hands of a skilled practitioner the formula is an opportunity as much as a restriction. On the surface, the most lighthearted of the four is Reginald Hills (HarperCollins, £15.99), part of his Joe Sixsmith series. A black private investigator based in an entirely fictional version of Luton, Sixsmith is not as noir as hes painted. He muddles through his cases with the help of integrity, intuition and frequent pints of Guinness.
His aunt Mirabelle and girlfriend Beryl are taking part in the Llanffugiol Choral Festival, which draws him over the border into Wales, a country where they do things very differently. Before they even get to the festival, Sixsmith is obliged to rescue a maiden in distress from a torched cottage owned by media folk from London. This is the prelude to a slew of crimes linked to the festival and a local public school.
Perhaps intentionally, the Sixsmith series lacks the range and depth of Hills Dalziel-and-Pascoe novels. Sixsmith himself has an irritating habit of saying Shoot! at difficult moments, the sort of euphemism you sometimes wish you could take literally. But Hill deftly combines an almost Wodehousian verbal playfulness with more sinister elements - the vulnerability of children, for example, and the darker side of Welsh nationalism. This is the best Sixmouth novel to date, and another reminder that British crime writers dont come any better than Reginald Hill.
No one has satisfactorily explained why so many English-speaking crime writers choose to set their books in Italy. Michael Dibdin and Magdalen Nabb have led the field for some years. Now Donna Leon is giving them a run for their money. Fatal Remedies (Heinemann, £15.99) is her eighth novel to feature Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police. For Brunetti the story begins when the phone rings in the middle of the night. One of his men informs him that they have just arrested Paola, Brunettis wife, for throwing a stone through a travel agents window in the Piazza San Marco.
Paola is determined to draw attention to the fact that the travel agent is organizing sex tours to the Far East. Her refusal to compromise puts Brunettis career in jeopardy. But worse is to come when the owner of the travel agents is found garotted. The narrative follows the ripples caused by Paolas stone and arrives at unexpected shores.
One of the strengths of this excellent series is its portrait of the Brunettis marriage, which gets richer with every book. Add this to a vividly realised setting, a strong plot and intelligent writing and the result is a fine novel that lingers in the memory. Only the plot device at end disappoints. In fiction, its a short leap from Leons Venice to Ian Rankins Edinburgh. Dead Souls (Orion, £9.99) is the eleventh Inspector Rebus novel. From the stunning opening, it sustains the high standard Rankin set himself in Black and Blue and The Hanging Garden. The novel is both long and densely-plotted, qualities which in Rankins hands become virtues.
The Lothian and Borders force is shocked when golden-boy Jim Margolies pitches himself off Arthurs Rock to his death. Rebus, now drinking again, is haunted by the death of another colleague, for which he was partly responsible. Chasing an animal poisoner at the zoo, he catches a paedophile who had a grudge against Margolies instead. A charge wont stick so Rebus outs him to the neighbours - and then feels guilty about the consequences. A half-forgotten schoolfriend asks Rebus to help him find his missing son, in the process waking memories better left asleep. Finally a convicted killer is deported from the United States to Rebuss patch. Rankin manages this complex narrative with deceptive skill. In doing so he gives us glimpses of a society in flux with its streaks of humanity as well as its horrors. Reggie Nadelsons Bloody London (Faber, £9.99) shows another of Britains capital cities, this time through the eyes of Artie Cohen, a Russo-American private investigator now on his third excursion between covers. The novel provides corpses literally by the dozens. The murder of a wealthy Englishman in a New York swimming pool eventually brings Artie to London, a second set of murders and a disaster-movie climax at the Thames Barrier. Hardest of all, perhaps, is what Artie learns about his girlfriends past. Someone will probably label the book hard-boiled but if so it has a very runny yolk. Its best considered as sheer entertainment flavoured with a dash of moral outrage.
If this is formulaic, lets have more of it.
- author of the highly acclaimed Roth & Lydmouth Series)