herald

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Good detective work

From murder in france to death in florence, crime novels are only as good as their detective

DEATH has taken a holiday from this page for the last little while, and as crime is one of my personal favourite genres, I must say that I missed all the blood and gore.

THE FROZEN DEAD by Bernard Minier Mulholland Books (2013) €20.50 **

SET in the Pyrenees, this also included one of my personal favourite places, France. What's not to like? Well , it all kicks off via the murder of my personal favourite animal, the horse.

I wondered, with a professional amount of detachment, how much this was going to influence my feelings towards this novel.

I reckoned that I could probably handle it, and I could, because I immediately became distracted by the way in which the dead horse was presented up for discovery.

It was suspended from wires, with the skin of its back flayed into shapes resembling wings. "Hmm", thought I, '"That's totally Hannibal Lecter, right?"

This Silence of the Lambs vibe continued with the introduction of a young psychologist who is taking a year of observation at the Wargnier Institute for the criminally insane – really?

Her colleagues are such hackneyed loons themselves that this entire storyline, soon to intersect with the mysteries surrounding the crime, renders one entirely incredulous.

Add to this a lead detective, the commandant Martin Servaz, who is hilariously misogynistic, if that is not an oxymoron.

All of the women involved are reduced to their constituent parts – one can only imagine being on the receiving end of the sexually-charged looks Servaz aims at his blonde and sexy Gendarme opposite number.

Equally, although only 40 years of age, he is utterly baffled by her tats and her fluency with computers.

Much of the dialogue is thinly disguised exposition, resulting in stilted conversations – most of the clues are of trip-and-you'll-miss-it variety.

Very little about this is engaging, although the author's ability to render the encroaching darkness of a Pyrenean winter is good, and the endgame is appropriately fast-paced. If only the rest of it had been as finely tuned.

CRITICAL MASS by Sara Paretsky Hodder & Stoughton (2013) €11.45 ****

THE sixteenth VI Warshaski mystery is a well-written taut blend of razor-sharp intellect wedded with homely humour.

The PI is one of the holy trinity of female protagonists – with Kinsey Milhone and Sharon McCone – who transformed the crime genre for lady detectives. And all of her qualities, good and bad, are still going strong.

Paretsky takes on some serious plot points here, and much of it works. Even the bits that don't – if you daydreamed through physics in school, you may become flooded with deja vu – are easily forgiven.

THE UNQUIET GRAVE by Steven Dunne Headline (2013) €11.50 *****

STUCK in the cold case department as punishment for his shenanigans on a previous case, DI Damen Brook is as satisfying a maverick copper as you are likely to meet.

A series of unsolved cases involving murdered children, going back all the way to 1963, happen to come across his desk and he begins to work out all the connections that link them – connections that might hit too close to his constabulary home.

Dunne is a devil with the pacing, the tension and the plotting – in other words, all the elements that make a police procedural great. One of the best I've read in an age.

THANKLESS IN DEATH by JD Robb Piatkus (2013) €11.50 ***

HOW do you go about leeching all of the suspense out of your romantic suspense novel? You always keep the police one step behind the criminal.

This isn't exactly uncommon practice, but here, Robb presents us with the actions of Jerry Reinhold, an angry young man, and then presents us with her detectives, lead by Lieutenant Eve Dallas, working out exactly the same. It is not gripping in the extreme.

Me, I'll keep reading this series simply because Robb has crafted characters that I want to know about, off duty. Maybe just keep the romance in but get rid of the suspense?

THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes Harper Collins (2013) €18.75 **

SOMETIMES, I avoid reading a book's flap copy because I would like to be surprised. But I ended up entirely confused in this case and had to revert back to the publicity text just to tell what in the world I was reading.

Here, a killer travels back and forth through time, choosing his victims young and then waiting for them to grow up.

One of his so-called 'shining girls' thwarts him and they end up in a race against both time and space – and against each other.

It's a great concept. But the writing, however, is diffident in the extreme, and leaves out necessary details, perhaps in an effort to be artful. It's not nearly tense enough for such a complicated idea.

DEATH IN FLORENCE by Marco Vichi Hodder & Stoughton (2013) €25.99 **

THE 21st Century probably didn't invent forensics, right? There is something out of place about modern terminology in Vichi's mid-Sixties set crime, in which a young boy goes missing and is found dead up in the Tuscan hills.

Here, too, there is a diffident quality to the storytelling, which may be a product of its translation, or of its Italianness. Not terribly engaging and made me long for Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti.

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