Reviews of Lee Child, Charles Todd, and more…
Our reviews section examines the latest mystery offerings, covering books, anthologies, audio books, and videos.
A WANTED MAN
By Lee Child
New York: Delacorte Press, 2012. $28.00
Having written seventeen books in the Jack Reacher series, most of them big best sellers, Lee Child is the very definition of an old pro: a master of keen suspense, tricky plots, and beautifully choreographed violence. Unlike a lot of writers in his position, though, he never phones it in. His latest Reacher thriller, A Wanted Man, is as deftly plotted and polished as his first or tenth.
The events of A Wanted Man pick up right after the conclusion of The Affair (2011), the previous book in the series. Reacher is hitchhiking across Nebraska, trying to get to Virginia to meet a woman. He catches a ride in a car that turns out to have some very bad dudes in it. Once he figures this out, he needs to do something about it. But solving the problem without putting innocent lives in danger is going to be tricky. Meanwhile, an FBI agent is investigating an especially bloody murder in a town in the middle of nowhere. The victim was a State Department official. Or maybe he was a CIA agent. Or maybe he was nobody at all. Regardless, Julia Sorenson is going to figure it out. What do you suppose are the chances this situation is somehow connected to the one that Reacher is in?
One welcome change from some of the Reacher novels of a few years back is that Jack is no longer acting as much like Superman. Sure, he still figures it all out in the end, and kicks a lot of ass along the way, but he’s no longer quite the lethal savant he was for a while. And it turns out that a more human Reacher is a more interesting one. A Wanted Man is highly recommended to all thriller readers.
—David J. Montgomery
THE ABSENT ONE (UK title, DISGRACE)
By Jussi Adler-Olsen
New York: Dutton, 2012. $26.95
Following the English-language translation of last year’s Mercy—retitled The Keeper of Lost Causes in the US—which featured the English debut of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Danish Department Q novels, we now have the second in the series, The Absent One. These books may be riding on the coattails of the recent explosion in Scandinavian / Nordic crime fiction, but they are far more than imitations. They mix social commentary with a subversion of the conventions and tropes of the genre. At the center of the narrative of The Absent One, we have the Batman and Robin of crime fiction, surly and introspective Detective Carl Morck and his assistant, a Syrian immigrant named Assad. Extending the analogy to include Batgirl, we also have failed policewoman turned secretary, Rose Knudsen, thus expanding the duo into a crime-fighting trio.
Department Q is a section that investigates cold cases, but this time Morck and company are faced with a murder that has already been solved—according to the case file left at the department’s door. Morck’s attention is drawn to the upper echelons of Danish society and the twenty-year-old murder of siblings linked to an elite boarding school. As the trio investigates, they discover that there was a group of students at the school who got their kicks from violence and murder. Today, these madmen sit as bastions of Danish business and society, free from their violent past and coated with the respectability that their positions have provided. They hide their true natures from sight, or so Morck considers. Three of their number—Torsten Florin, Ulrik Jensen, and Ditlev Pram—appear untouchable, since their friend Bjarne Thøgersen admitted to the crimes. Another one, Kristian Wolf, died in a hunting “accident.” The sixth of the group, and the sole female, Kirsten-Marie Lassen, has dropped off the radar. The key to solving this case (if there is a case) lies with a mysterious homeless woman named Kimmie who could link the 1987 murders to the elite group of psychopaths. Kimmie is an interesting character and illustrates the flipside of privilege, showing how easy it is to fall through the cracks.
Adler-Olsen peppers the narrative with deadpan and, at times, gallows humor, using Assad and Rose as foils to the darkness and violence. Without the witty banter between Carl Morck and his Department Q assistants, this would be a troubling read. The novel also raises questions regarding the class systems that appear in every society and the tendency of “elites” to perceive themselves to be above the law. While addressing a theme that has been used before, The Absent One is a masterful read and Adler-Olsen’s take is as disturbing as it is entertaining, offering a wealth of social introspection into the madness of our times and a glimpse of how power and wealth can corrupt.
By Charles Todd
New York: William Morrow, 2012. $25.99
Each of the Inspector Ian Rutledge novels by the distinguished mother-son writing pair known as Charles Todd has maintained a delicate balance between compassion for their grievously wounded protagonist and ever more imaginative plot lines that explore the complex roots of human fallibility. The latest installment in the series, The Confession, opens on an eerie encounter between Rutledge and a stranger who claims to have murdered his cousin some years earlier, during World War I. Intrigued but unable to officially investigate the alleged crime because there is no corpse, Rutledge decides to privately investigate. Accompanied as always by the voice of Hamish MacLeod, the close friend he had to execute for mutiny in the trenches, Rutledge drives into the marshy, enigmatic Essex countryside to a hostile village where he immediately senses undercurrents of violence and conspiracy.
Two short weeks after the peculiar visit that launched Rutledge into the murky case he can’t seem to put aside, the body of the man who “confessed” is found in the Thames, a bullet in the back of his head and a gold locket around his neck. Driven by a fierce determination to unravel a crime that page by page becomes more convoluted, Rutledge finds himself physically and emotionally endangered. Several of the surly villagers apparently will do almost anything to conceal their unwholesome past from the outside world, while Rutledge’s antagonistic superior, Old Bowels, is taken down by a heart attack, leaving the inspector to ponder the ramifications of having a new man in charge. Meanwhile, Rutledge fears that if somehow Hamish’s “presence” is discovered, the career at Scotland Yard that until now has helped preserve his sanity will come to a screeching halt.
Exquisitely realized atmosphere, a poignantly drawn protagonist—especially when Rutledge cannot help but think of the woman he loves but believes he can never marry—and a fiendishly complicated plot make The Confession one of Charles Todd’s most enthralling cases to date. This is a series to cherish, one that few of today’s crime writers can hope to rival.
—Mitzi M. Brunsdale
A DARK REDEMPTION
By Stav Sherez
London: Faber and Faber, 2012. $11.95
In the hands of a lesser writer, the premise of a British police procedural set in London featuring a troubled, maverick detective, who is in perpetual conflict with his superiors could rapidly slip down the cliché gradient. A Dark Redemption, however, does the opposite due to the literary ability of Stav Sherez.
A Dark Redemption is Sherez’s third novel and appears to be the start of a powerful and timely series featuring DI Jack Carrigan and his partner DC Geneva Miller. Carrigan still bears the scars of a visit he and two university friends made to northern Uganda many years previously, while his partner, Miller, has her own demons following her recent demotion from detective sergeant due to “irregularities.” Miller’s superiors assign her to work with Carrigan and, as incentive, have promised her reinstatement to her former rank. The covert part of Miller’s role is to keep watch and report back on Carrigan’s activities to the fifth floor. Miller’s misgivings about the assignment are a microcosm of the novel’s narrative structure: a feeling of unease is striated across the novel as the two detectives explore London’s African immigrant community and discover that there are complex agendas at play.
The case that binds Carrigan and Miller, and provides the backbone of the novel, is that of the rape, torture, and murder of Grace Okello, an overseas student from Uganda. Carrigan initially believes that Grace’s horrific end is tied to her abusive boyfriend, however Miller is less convinced: she sees links to the murdered girl’s academic research into the armed conflicts in her native Uganda. As the case progresses, the odd coupling of the troubled duo starts to take shape. They soon confirm that the roots of Grace’s murder stretch back to Africa and the child soldiers exploited by groups such as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
As the detectives delve deeper into the case, Sherez adds layers of moving social commentary and insight into the troubled lives of displaced Africans in modern-day London. The journey Carrigan and Miller make down the hidden streets of immigrant London leads to a series of satisfying revelations and twists, leaving the two detectives positioned for what promises to be a remarkable series. At times the novel is truly dark, meshing London’s underbelly with the author’s frenzied imagination. This latest offering from Sherez also deals with the theme of “stranger in a strange land,” which Sherez explored in previous works, The Devil’s Playground (2004) and The Black Monastery (2009). The other aspect that A Dark Redemption shares with these precursors is the glimpse of a darker world co-existing with our own. There are sections in the narrative that make the journey truly terrifying, propelled by an uneasiness as persistent as the beat of an African drum.
Establishing a series upon the threadbare carpet that is the police procedural subgenre is a risky endeavor, but one that Sherez achieves masterfully. A Dark Redemption is a page-turning and thought-provoking story that seems torn from the troubling reality the media chooses to ignore.
THE DARK ROSE
By Erin Kelly
New York: Pamela Dorman Books, 2012. $26.95
Two strangers, each carrying a dark secret, meet and fall in love. And when they finally reveal to each other what they’ve kept hidden, their lives change irrevocably. Lovers with secrets are not unusual in fiction, but Erin Kelly treats this motif in a surprisingly fresh way in her second novel, The Dark Rose.
Witnessing his father’s accidental death as a child has left Paul unable to bear the sight of blood and the bullies at school torment him because of it. A young, illiterate tough named Daniel fights off Paul’s adversaries and Paul repays him by helping him with his schoolwork. By the time they graduate, Paul has reluctantly become involved in Daniel’s life of petty theft. He agrees to help Daniel so he can use his share of the money to attend college and become a teacher. But during a robbery, they are surprised by a watchman. Daniel kills the man, the boys are caught, Daniel is charged with murder, and Paul is named as a material witness who will have to testify against his friend. For his protection and rehabilitation, Paul is sent with other troubled youths to work on a historic garden restoration project. No one at the garden knows what he did to get there and Paul does not enlighten them, fearing that someone will find out where he is and silence him.
Louisa is the well-respected master gardener in charge of the restoration project. We learn through a series of flashbacks that as a teenager working in a London herb store, she was betrayed and humiliated by her boyfriend, a rock musician. During her confrontation with him, he stumbled and fell into the street. When he reached out for her, she pushed him away and he fell into the path of an oncoming car. The driver, drunk, left the scene of the accident and she fled as well, feeling responsible for her boyfriend’s death. Over the years, Louisa has turned her interest in plants, particularly ancient herbal remedies, into a career specializing in restoring ancient gardens. She chose this path because she knew it would take her far away from London and anyone who might associate her with the accident. The passing years, however, have not blunted her guilt, which she harbors as obsessively as she once harbored her love for the musician. She has become a recluse, working well by day and drinking herself into oblivion at night to escape her memories.
When Louisa meets Paul one day on the garden grounds, she is struck by his uncanny resemblance to her past lover. She is troubled by this but drawn to him all the same. She also begins to realize how lonely she has become. In turn, Paul realizes that he enjoys working outdoors and that he likes the people with whom he works, especially Louisa. He is lonely too and needs to be close to someone he can trust. They soon fall in love. For both, the constraints of guilt and worry begin to fade and they start thinking positively about the future. But when they share their secrets and try to help each other, as lovers often do, shocking things begin to happen and the reader is jolted to the very last page.