Monday, January 21, 2013

Garry Disher, WHISPERING DEATH: Police Procedural with Depth

Australian Garry Disher writes two series of mysteries that I follow closely: his very dark and violent Wyatt group, where the protagonist is a sociopath that Wyatt manages to present in ways that let readers sympathize with (what does that say about our inner selves?); and the Hal Challis/Ellen Destry series, in which WHISPERING DEATH is title six.  I look forward to each Challis/Destry mystery, both for the Australian police procedural aspects (Disher usually include cross-jurisdiction conflict and challenges within the police force, such as sexual discrimination and political pressure), and for the warmth of Challis as a conflicted yet committed person of "good heart."

Reading WHISPERING DEATH will be a spoiler for some of the earlier books, so if you haven't yet read them, I strongly recommend starting at the beginning, with Dragon Man, which Soho Crime brought to the US in 2005. But if you're headed directly into this newest book instead, you'll find plenty of background to let you enjoy it directly. The only part seriously missing is Challis's lover Ellen Destry herself, as she's headed away on a European training in her newly embraced field of solving sex crimes. But her role as investigator of this aspect is quickly assumed by the edgy and sharp sergeant Jeannie Schiff, on hand to help deal with the crime that Challis's team needs to rapidly resolve.
"Thanks for coming down," Challis said. "As I said on the phone, our sexual offences team isn't in place yet, so we could do with some help."

"Well, yeah," drawled Schiff. "Abduction and rape? A bit different from some sad bloke waving his penis at schoolgirls." Her voice was raspy, low, not unpleasant, but sharp underneath.
Disher sets up, at the same time, a different sort of serial criminal in action in the same terrain: a career burglar with an eye for high-value items, including artwork. Grace -- clearly a pseudonym for some of her crimes, but still significant as a name -- is a highly trained pro, with rules for her operations, and plenty of financial success from them. But on the inside, she's desperate for the connections that her career forbids, and she's also close to being a sociopath herself: isolated, with feelings cut away, and a past that speaks of abuse and loss. Because she tend to rob empty houses in carefully planned heists, she isn't as violent as Wyatt, the grim criminal in Disher's other series. Yet I kept hearing Wyatt's voice in Grace's. So the two series are echoing in each other.

If you explore the series in sequence, you'll have the delight of seeing Disher's writing become ever tighter, every more impeccably paced. Even the dialogue, inner and between characters, ascends in skill, to the point where conversations in WHISPERING DEATH have clearly been fine-tuned, one word at a time, for maximum impact and elegant revelation of character. Disher is now being called a grand master in the field, and I agree.

One last note on this book: Sure, there's violent crime in it. But what drew me through the pages, turning me antisocial for the weekend, was the affection, comradeship, and commitment that Disher's characters exhibit. And that's what I'll remember most about WHISPERING DEATH: the goodness in the ordinary police detectives, that positions them in true opposition to the forces of evil.

PS -- Click here for other Kingdom Books reviews of Disher's books.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Margaret Yorke, British Mystery Author

Margaret Yorke, photo by Jerry Bauer
In all the sweet chaos of the holiday season (which increasingly seems to stretch from the week before Halloween, to the week after New Year's Day), we neglected to mark the November 2012 passing of one of the grande dames of British mystery, Margaret Yorke. Author of more than 40 crime novels, and 1999 winner of the Crime Writers' Association (CWA) Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding lifetime contribution to the field, she rarely won as much acclaim as she deserved. Here is a link to her obituary: One of my gifts to myself when life slows down a bit will be a list of her work, and the time to read and re-read all of it.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Intense, Suspenseful, and a Cleverly Twisted Plot: Jennifer McMahon, THE ONE I LEFT BEHIND

The best part of January can be the new books coming out to greet 2013 -- and since the holidays are done, most likely the next book purchase is for oneself, not for someone else!

Jennifer McMahon crafts powerful suspense, and THE ONE I LEFT BEHIND is her sixth novel. It's terrifying. And unforgettable. And absolutely worth reading.

With taut pacing, and all too believably, McMahon takes us into the complicated and painful results of small, devastating decisions that force their way into the next generation. Today's TV series that feature serial murders, real or not, and the many true-crime books and volumes of "based-on-the-truth" crime fiction have taught us all: The nastiest crimes come from people who've grown up twisted, often as a result of terrible abuse in childhood. But sometimes the serial killer doesn't seem to have those childhood roots of trauma; instead, a small vulnerability exists, and an adult decision or event triggers a violent pattern.

For Reggie Dufrane, daughter of one of the most beautiful -- and flirtatious -- women in Brighton, Connecticut, childhood meant being fussed over by aunt, watching her mother perform the role of "I was a famous model," and savoring a close (too close?) friendship with Tara, whose games always involve risk and sacrifice. "Imagine that your house is on fire," Tara challenges -- "you have exactly one minute to grab what you can. What do you choose?"

We meet Reggie in Vermont, though, in 2010 -- long after the 1976 events that turned her into an orphan and placed her with her increasingly odd aunt Louise. She's an architect with a following, and a gift for bringing the outside in, something that echoes the old treehouse where she and Tara and a boy, Charlie, bonded in those early years.

And oddly, she still wears around her neck the tiny hourglass filled with pink sand that Tara used to turn, to time those long-ago dares.

In many other ways, the past hasn't let go of Reggie. Though she lives in a sparsely furnished, elegant home that reflects her design passions, she is also somehow bound to the series of unsolved "slayings" that took place in Brighton Falls, and the reporter who turned the news into a "true crime" book called Neptune's Hands, Martha Paquette. This reporter is the first of McMahon's characters that shows her dark side, and her insistence on dragging Reggie into the crimes suggests she's against Reggie all the time. I was ready to slap her, myself -- that's how quickly McMahon's multilevel psychological thriller took me onto Reggie's side, ready to defend her against any more pain.

But the reporter's short excerpts also give us a resonant level at which to feel the results of what's happened to Reggie, then and now. Here's one of the supposed excerpts from that "true crime" report:
"I think, in so many ways, that before the murders we were living in an age of innocence," says Reverend Higgins of the Brighton Falls First Congregational Church. "We thought nothing bad could happen here. Neptune took something from us, beyond the lives of those poor women. He took away our safety and showed us the true face of evil. It's hard to imagine going back to the way things were before. I don't think Brighton Falls, or any of its residents, will ever be the same."
As Reggie staggers under the weight of that evil, and its resurgence -- for the kidnappings and hand amputations and killings in her hometown seem to have resumed -- she's entangled in the unresolved relationships, events, and connections from a generation earlier. Can she escape another round of violence? Can she protect the people she loves?

And most pressing, McMahon forces us to wonder: Can our innocence ever be reclaimed?

One caution, and it comes up with all of McMahon's books for me: The covers of her suspense novels feature young women's faces, often from childhood or the teen years, and THE ONE I LEFT BEHIND (like Promise Not to Tell and Don't Breathe a Word) looks almost like a young adult novel. (See the Kingdom Books review of Island of the Lost Girls for this aspect, too.) If there's a young adult in your life who's already handling Stephen King, then McMahon's frightening twists can create an atmospheric and compelling read for that teen. But if you know teens who are still innocent, keep this book for yourself instead. Adult readers know something about evil -- and how to seek redemption.