Books

Criminals between covers

Legal eagles, amateur sleuths, cops and killers heat up the bookshelves

July 8 1996
Books

Criminals between covers

Legal eagles, amateur sleuths, cops and killers heat up the bookshelves

July 8 1996

Criminals between covers

Books

Legal eagles, amateur sleuths, cops and killers heat up the bookshelves

Murder knows no season, but summertime does seem to produce an inordinate number of books devoted to cops and killers, crimes of the heart and heartless criminality. Perhaps publishers know that while a hot day at the beach makes for sluggish bodies, readers’ minds are ripe for a jolt of malice and mayhem— safely tucked between book covers, of course. Maclean’s writers and editors review some recent releases from the crime scene:

Ruth Rendell, the amazingly prolific British crime writer, heats up the summer with two books, Bloodlines (Doubleday, $26.95) and The Brimstone Wedding (Viking Penguin, $28.99), the latter written under her pen name,

Barbara Vine. Readers unfamiliar with Rendell’s finely crafted take on the macabre will find Bloodlines, her sixth collection of stories, a captivating introduction. In the 11 long and short pieces, murder is done with an intriguing variety of weapons—a fire log, a chiffon scarf, poison mushrooms, even nicotine patches. And some of the people are memorable—an extreme shopaholic, for instance, and a man whose wife discovers that he cheats on The Times crossword puzzle. But Rendell’s fans may miss the character and plot development that give her novels so much power.

Those elements can be found in abundance in The Brimstone Wedding, the eighth Vine novel.

Jenny, a naive working-class young woman employed in an upscale nursing home, befriends one of the elderly patients. Stella is dying of cancer, but unlike many of her co-inhabitants, she maintains her faculties and her sense of dignity.

Stella represents a kind of teel wisdom for Jenny, who was raised in an unstable household and is now in the midst of a clandestine extramarital affair. Yet Stella herself harbors a secret—a terrible 30-year-old secret—and she has revealed it on a series of tape recordings that she intends to bequeath to Jenny. The unravelling of the double narrative, and

the way in which the two women’s lives were linked in the past, is a marvel of storytelling. Once again, Vine offers a tale that is as psychologically penetrating as it is satisfyingly suspenseful.

In Buried in Stone (Doubleday, $24.95), veteran author Eric Wright gives the leading role to Mel Pickett, a character he first introduced in A Sensitive Case, one of his 10 Charlie Salter mysteries. In this outing, Pickett is a newly retired Toronto policeman who has just built a cabin for himself in Ontario’s cottage country. When a man’s body is discovered in a rock crevasse near Mel’s place, he gets drawn into the inquiry because of his friendship with the local police chief,

Lyman Caxton. Wright’s sure touch in sketching his characters’ foibles—especially Mel’s cautious approach to a new romance—and his wry descriptions of the social workings of Larch River, make for an entertaining backdrop to the plot. The puzzle, not overly complicated but clearly plausible, is well constructed.

Another non-urban setting—the Rocky Mountain foothills—proves appealing in Suzanne North’s second Phoebe Fairfax mystery, Seeing Is Deceiving (McClelland & Stewart, $25.99). Phoebe’s solitary interests include making nature films in the beautiful environs, but her day job as a TV camerawoman on a local lifestyle show puts her squarely in the hurly-burly of daily life. When she and her colleague Candi Sinclair, the show’s host, are sent to cover a New Age trade fair, they stumble into a murder. The tale mixes trends and social topicality— New Age tonics and techniques, elderly gay uncles, and pregnant executives who take their work to the birthing bed—so determinedly that at times it reads like a compilation of lifestyle headlines. The book is well plotted, but superficial characterization and the often clichéd prose make it seem contrived.

In his new thriller, The Grid (Doubleday, $29.95), British novelist Philip Kerr taps into a popular paranoia of the late 20th century: computers are taking over and they are every bit as bad at running things as humans are. The title refers to the nickname of a state-of-the-art Los Angeles highrise in which a computer controls virtually every aspect of the building’s operations— from security to fish-feeding to washroom cleaning. When things suddenly go awry, the highrise itself turns into a serial killer. Some heavy foreshadowing makes it clear early on why the people trapped inside are meeting such grisly deaths. The fun—or the tension, depending on how seriously one reads the book—lies in figuring out how (electrocution? gassing?) the computer will kill its next victim and who among the protagonists will make it out alive. Given Kerr’s agreement with Prince Charles about the dismal state of modern architecture, it is not giving anything away to say that the Grid’s megalomaniacal architect is not one of them.

Megalomania also figures in The Debt to Pleasure (McClelland & Stewart, $26.99), a delectable treat doused with irony and black humor and liberally spiced with essences of Nabokov and Proust. The debut novel by Londoner John Lanchester, formerly the restaurant critic for The Observer, is a stew of gastronomy, travelogue, literary playfulness and homicide. Ostensibly a compendium of recipes and thoughts on food by a snobbish and sinister gourmet named Tarquín Winot, the book gradually reveals itself to be a portrait of a psychopath. Winot’s culinary comments are often amusing (“there is a sinister genius in the very name Brown Windsor Soup”), as are his evocations of significant people in his life (his former nanny had “the ovoid-faced sluggish solemnity of the natural mouth breather”). At times,

Winot’s lengthy displays of erudition leave the reader feeling glutted. And Lanchester falters when, towards the conclusion, he strains to give the novel a nourishing moral purpose. But, overall, The Debt to Pleasure is a devilishly tasty entertainment.

Precise as the thousands of incident reports Joseph Wambaugh submitted during his 14-year-tenure as a Los Angeles policeman, Floaters (Bantam, $29.95)—his 15th book—sets steely San Diego police detectives on the trail of murder in the midst of the world’s premier sailing competition, The America’s Cup.

Caught up in the frenzy of the international regatta is Ambrose Lutterworth, a middleaged twit whose identity is inextricably linked to his honorary title as the San Diego Yacht Club’s “Keeper of the Cup.” With the strong New Zealand crew threatening to take the prize, Lutterworth enlists the help of a call girl to carry out a ham-fisted ploy to ensure that all is not lost to the Kiwis. While Wambaugh takes witty potshots at the sport’s flannel-and-doublebreasted-blazer pretensions, the novel’s appeal stems from the hard-boiled dialogue and Wambaugh’s intimate knowledge of how, and what, the police really think.

What Wambaugh is to the police station, John Grisham is to the courtroom.

And in an era of controversial U.S. jury verdicts, from Rodney King to O. J. Simpson, The Runaway Jury (Doubleday, $32.95) is Grisham’s most topical legal thriller yet. His seventh book is an inside view of jury manipulation in a wrongfuldeath-by-tobacco trial in Biloxi, Miss. Rankin Fitch heads Big Tobacco’s multimillion-dollar slush fund, dedicated to preserving its perfect 16-0 legal record by whatever means necessary. The reptilian

Fitch pours money into the defence, both legitimate (including insanely expensive jury consultants) and illegitimate (bribing, blackmailing and threatening jurors). But as the jury begins to defy the experts’ predictions, it becomes apparent that there is an independent third party at work on the 12 men and women. Grisham clutters up his increasingly transparent plot with more medical details than readers, particularly smokers, will likely want, but his tension-filled account of how the

jurors arrive at their verdict exerts a magnetic pull right to the end.

It is a long way from Grisham’s bloodless suspense to the world of Evil Eye (Penguin, $29.99), the latest offering from Michael Slade, billed by his publisher as “Canada’s Master of Horror.” The tag is fully justified by Slade’s zest for gory detail. There is no shortage of passages where a reader can ponder the literal meaning of the word disembowelment, but an exact body count (which would probably exceed 100) is impossible to reckon.

That is because even Slade seems unsure of the full damage caused by a rogue Mountie with a kilo of plastic explosive stuffed into an impolite orifice. The plot moves at lightning speed, uncovering ludicrous coincidences and bizarre motives. Slade’s Mountie heroes battle a cophating neo-Nazi skinhead, a vicious pair of African mercenaries, and man-eating crocodiles just to get at their main adversary, who has killed a Mountie’s mother and framed him for the crime. Slade is the pseudonym of two Vancouver criminal lawyers who profess deep admiration for the RCMP. Given the number of corpses wearing red serge, theirs is a very special case of tough love.

There is far more real horror to be found in Christopher Hyde’s A Gathering of Saints (Distican, $32), set during the London blitz. Hyde’s unstintingly detailed depiction of the effects of 500-lb. incendiary bombs on human bodies makes the book’s murders seem antiseptic by comparison. Among the hundreds of corpses found after the Luftwaffe’s first large-scale attack on Sept. 7, 1940, is one murder victim, dead before the bombs fell. As the blitz continues through the fall, more bodies are found, each killed at the site of a major German raid well before the planes arrive. Scotland Yard investigator Morris Black soon finds himself enmeshed in the Official Secrets Act, chasing a killer tangled up with British Intelligence and a secret Nazi code. Hyde’s byzantine plot, which has Morris encountering such real people as James Bond-creator Ian Fleming and Communist double agent Guy Burgess, is almost too dense to grasp. But the traumatized atmosphere of the great city under siege, the smell of terror and death, is brilliantly realized and compulsively readable. □