It’s been twelve years since Time’s Witness, the last book to feature
that curious but complementary police team Cuddy Mangum and Justin B.
Savile (the Fifth). But Michael Malone is back at last: great news for
fans of literate, downright witty and multi-faceted crime fiction.
Things are changing yet again in Hillston, North Carolina. It’s no longer the "polite college town" it was back in Malone’s Uncivil Seasons (1983), the first of the three books to feature the duo. The town’s sanitation workers are on strike for higher pay; it’s more politically correct (there’s also talk of "the New South"), and there are near riots at the local concerts of a visiting rock star. They’re also a little more fond of murder than they used to be.
A mathematics professor from the local university is on trial for the murder of his wife. Cuddy Mangum, still the local Police Chief, has another female corpse on his hands, unidentified after several weeks of police work. Similarities with another murder 50 miles distant has the local press suggesting that the Hillston area has its first serial killer and that the Hillston Police Department, under Mangum and Justin Savile his homicide chief, is losing its grip.
That we get all that in the first 20 pages of the novel, along with a haunting and exquisitely written prologue that introduces the “slender luminous” beauty of Irish rock star Mavis Mahar, is an indicator that this is Malone writing at or near his brilliant best. And along with such writing, we get great people, many of them (this book teems with life). In particular, of course, there is the high-born and tenuously married Savile with his penchant for the ladies, in this case the enchanting Mavis.
With Savile narrating (as he did in Uncivil Seasons), the canny and colourful Mangum, whilst an integral and crucial part of the investigation, is perhaps less prominent than his fans would like. (Check out the previous - marvellous - Time’s Witness, for the reverse situation.) But toss in a cunningly plotted story along with the labyrinthine machinations of the various levels of local government and you have a hugely satisfying read.
One or two quibbles: the teasing plot involves a serial killer, a fashionable component in many plots these days, especially when it involves, as here, those other clichés of the genre, taunting notes, FBI profilers (though female and impeccably drawn) along with a bizarre theme to the murders. Nor does Malone’s "New South" seem a lot different to that depicted in the previous books (or is that the point?).
Nevertheless wonderfully entertaining stuff, which should not only delight, but send you back, readers and non-readers alike, to Time’s Witness, available from Robinson in July 2002.