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Saturday 1 October 2016

A good murder mystery is hard to beat (or maim)

Falling in Love By Donna Leon William Heinemann (2015) €17.99 HHHHH

After several instalments that didn't live up to what had gone before, the 24th in Leon's Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice is pleasing on all the levels that has kept me coming back to these novels, despite the recent frustrations.

While there are one or two elements that are beginning to strain one's credulity somewhat, this is a return to form for the author, and a pure delight.

Twenty-three instalments ago, the American expatriate author kicked off with Death at La Fenice, set in the world of opera and with a noted soprano, Flavia Petrelli, as its prime suspect.

Now, Flavia's back in town and in need of Guido Brunetti's help: an embarrassment of yellow roses seems to be following her around the world, showing in their dozens in her dressing rooms, and blizzarding onto the stage during her curtain calls.

When an excessively enormous bunch materialises on her very doorstep, she turns to Brunetti for help.

What follows is not only an investigation into the mind of a stalker, but also one into the concept of friendship. Guido finds himself wondering if indeed he and Flavia are friends - can a policeman be pals with someone who figured largely in a previous case? Is the passage of time enough to erase all that history? And yet, that history is their only connection.

Is Guido more likely to help her because she's famous, more likely to invite her along to dinner with his beloved wife and her parents because Flavia is a diva? And is he compromising his own professional integrity by being personally fascinated?

This is utterly satisfying on all levels, not the least of which is the usual morally ambiguous ending. This is not only a reflection on life itself, which is rarely tidy, but also on Leon's experience of Italian bureaucracy.

In the past, it has seemed as though the writer's frustration was getting the better of her, and the deliberately equivocal endings to at least the last five books has been more annoying than thought-provoking.

In this case, it was deliciously shocking.

The Skeleton Road

By Val McDermid Little Brown (2015) €20.85

Almost everything bodes ill in a Val McDermid novel. If someone repeatedly thinks about how much they love someone, you'd better brace yourself; if another is pleasantly stunned by the loyalty of another, then forget it, it's not going to end well.

Equally, if there's a character who seems unremittingly stupid and a waste of DNA, you can be sure that that person will reveal depths of compassion that make you fond of him or her in a heartbeat.

As McDermid thrillers go, this isn't as thrilling as many that have gone before, so all that emotional rollercoastering is the primary pleasure (if that's the right word) to be had here.

A skeleton is found in the turret of a derelict building, and DCI Karen Pirie, in charge of the Historical Case Unit for Police Scotland, finds herself on a trail that takes her from the hallowed halls of an Oxford College to Croatia to become acquainted with the ghosts of the Balkan war.

This horrifying period of European history is the crucible in which the story burns, and too often sliding into protracted history lesson.

There are three storylines, one of which is Pirie's investigation; the other two concern an academic from St Scholastica's College and two petty bureaucrats on the trail of war criminals.

This last is the least rewarding of the three, and indeed by the end of the novel, this latter duo has remained so dislikeable that it was desperately tempting to skip over their narrative.

The conclusion is appropriately morally challenging. As much as I like the character of Karen Pirie, I found myself, perversely, pining for Jacko Vance and Tony Hill and those unflinching acts of violence. It takes all kinds.

Hidden

By Emma Kavanagh Cornerstone (2015) €19.50

Police procedurals usually start with a crime and go about the solving of it in a linear timeline. Kavanagh has subverted this truism by having the crime committed before we know any of the characters, and then moving back in time to the days that lead up to the crime.

I'm all for changes of pace, and about halfway through the novel, as we become accustomed to the personalities, and begin to have favourites, the technique seems to be working.

Once we get back to the climax, however, the revelation of who the perpetrator is doesn't feel earned without having truly developed a plausible motive.

Without spoiling, the killer just didn't convince, and it made the pay-off of the unusual approach unrewarding.

Henrietta Who

By Catherine Aird Open Road (2015) €10.44

It may well be the urtext of British rural cosy police procedurals: this is a reissue of a 1968 volume that is set post-World War II. Nostalgia all round, then.

In it, the sleepy village of Larking gets a shake up when a local woman is run down by a car with intent, and her death turns over all manner of rocks under which have been secrets waiting to be brought to light.

The central duo, Detective Inspector CD Sloan and his sidekick Detective-Constable Crosby, lead the way, enacting the impatient elder/brash younger copper duality.

This is readable, and the characters are well drawn without, oddly, being physically described - I had no idea what anyone looked like.

The unfolding mystery's pace is hampered by frequent, unnecessary rehashings between Sloan and his superior.

Anyone who has gone through all the Miss Marples and in search of something old/new will be in heaven.

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