BETWEEN COVERS

Summer body count

Nothing goes better with sun and sand than a nasty little murder

June 23 1997
BETWEEN COVERS

Summer body count

Nothing goes better with sun and sand than a nasty little murder

June 23 1997

Summer body count

BETWEEN COVERS

EDITORS' PICKS

Nothing goes better with sun and sand than a nasty little murder

Ah, summer, and the seasonal slaughter begins. On lakeside docks, beach towels and patio loungers, the corpses pile up. Mayhem and murder lurk behind every rosebush; intrigue insinuates itself into suburban backyards. With a new crop of thrillers and mysteries, Canadians can indulge in their taste for vicarious violence—guilt-free. A selection, reviewed by Maclean’s writers and editors:

Minette Walters appears to be the heiress apparent to the title of Britain’s Queen of Crime, an honorific that at various times has been bestowed upon P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. Her latest book, The Echo (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99), opens with a grabber: the decomposed body of a homeless man is found in the London garage of a well-to-do, attractive woman. As journalist Michael Deacon works up a profile of the derelict, it becomes apparent that no one is quite what they appear to be. The indigent man, highly educated and once successful, was not murdered but starved himself to death; the woman has a dubious past that includes illicit lovers and an embezzler husband who has disappeared. The story is multilayered, dense with detail of various levels of English society and filled with enough tantalizing clues to keep readers guessing. But the self-destructive Deacon is a deeply clichéd character, and the plot’s resolution depends too much on coincidence. Rendell, for now, can keep her title.

Homelessness also figures in Free Reign (National Book Network, $29.95) by Rosemary Aubert, a Toronto criminologist who makes a promising debut as a mystery novelist with her tale of Ellis Portal, a disgraced judge who now roams the wild ravines that form the green spine of Canada’s largest city. Portal, once convicted of a felony, has chosen to live as a vagrant rather than bring further shame on his now-estranged family. But he is forced to return to his past when he uncovers a severed black hand in his ravine garden. Solving the riddle of the hand leads to a complex but credible tale of medical misconduct, sinister dealings and misplaced love and loyalty. While Portal’s willing descent into a life on the fringe isn’t sufficiently explained, his rehabilitation into society is gradual and believable and, of course, paves the way for a sequel.

Alison Gordon’s fifth mystery, Prairie Hardball (McClelland & Stewart, $26.99), features her Toronto-based sleuthing heroine, Kate Henry, visiting her old stomping grounds in Saskatchewan. Baseball writer Kate and her live-in mate, police Det. Andy Munro, are in Kate’s home town of Indian Head to celebrate a festive occasion. Kate’s mother is being inducted into Saskatchewan’s Baseball Hall of Fame, along with the other former members of the Racine Belles, an all-women’s team from the 1940s. When one of the more flamboyant players is found dead, Kate’s nostalgic trip home is rudely interrupted. Gordon maintains her usual breezy tone as Kate unravels the puzzle, including a long-kept family secret. There’s more travelogue than tragedy as Kate makes her way around the prairie, but overall Gordon scores an easy win.

The Frankfurt International Bookfair, the world’s largest publishing trade show, is the setting for The Bookfair Murders (Little, Brown, $24.95), Anna Porter’s third volume featuring Marsha Hillier, a New York City book editor. The plot involves the killing of a much-loathed literary agent, who is dispatched by a particularly interesting method in the middle of the event’s glitziest party. Porter, a Toronto-based publishing veteran with many international contacts, has written a novel that is part roman à clef, and industry types will have fun picking out the real-life inspiration for certain characters. She is particularly adept at portraying the hand-tomouth existence of a freelance magazine writer. But those elements are not enough to save an overly long novel that offers more caricature than character and too often strains credibility.

Sparkle Hayter, once of Pouce Coupe,

B.C., has found her true home in the wildly unpredictable streets of New York City. A former journalist and sometime stand-up comedian, Hayter brought such a startlingly fresh voice to the mystery genre that her first book, What’s a Girl Gotta Do?, won a Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award in 1994. In Revenge of the Cootie Girls (Penguin, $27.99), heroine Robin Hudson, now a fortyish producer for an allnews TV channel, is succumbing to boredom attacks, which she tries to stave off with “shopping, massages, trendy scenes, drag balls, poetry slams, and sleeping with 25-year-olds. Well, one 25-year-old.” But things soon heat up when her naïve intern—whom Robin has invited to a girls night out, along with three of her moderately crazy friends—disappears on Halloween. It’s the beginning of a long night for Robin, who discovers that the trail is leading back to her own adolescent life. Various close shaves, false clues and an assortment of costumed weirdos lead Robin on a not-so-

* merry chase. By the story’s resolution,

the reader is almost as exhausted as the protagonist. Hayter has found a voice, but this time out, it’s just too breathless.

Britain’s Philip Kerr has carved out an unusual niche: he combines speculative science with thrill-a-minute action in a way that is not only plausible but highly entertaining. In his seventh novel, Esau (Doubleday, $29.95), Kerr sends a team of scientists to the Himalayas in search of the elusive yeti after mountain climber Jack Furness returns with a skull that has features of both ape and man. When Furness’s girlfriend, paleoarcheologist Stella Swift, determines that it is not a fossil but a recent sample, the hunt is on. Meanwhile, India and the state of Punjab are on the verge of war. And, unbeknownst to Furness and Swift, one of their team members is a CIA operative. While the identity of the agent is initially unclear, his actions indicate that his agenda and Washington’s are not necessarily the same. It makes for a heady mix—a rogue agent, treacherous terrain, dangerous creatures— and Kerr delivers it with the maximum degree of suspense.

David Ignatius, a Washington Post editor, has written a new spy novel that is as staunchly American as the spelling in its title and as thoroughly modern as today’s news. The plot of A Firing Offense pivots on competition in the globalized economy—in this case, rivalry between France and the United States to sell China a communications system. The action shifts from Paris to Washington, Beijing to Montreal. The French, with their anti-American impulses, are the villains. The hero is an American reporter who breaches journalistic ethics to play spy. As modern as its underpinnings are, much in the novel echoes the old-fashioned thriller. There is a secret science centre making bio-weaponry, even a clandestine society of business leaders seeking global power. In such ways, A Firing Offense recalls John Buchan’s 1915 thriller, The Thirty-nine Steps. One big difference: 20 years passed before Alfred Hitchcock turned Buchan’s book into a classic movie;

Hollywood bid at least $1.5 million for the rights to the Ignatius novel (with Tom Cruise the likely star) even before he had finished the final draft.

Robert B. Parker’s newest Spenser novel,

Small Vices (Bejo, $29.50), marks the 24th appearance of the hard-boiled Boston detective with only one name. Parker’s elliptical dialogue still crackles, and Spenser’s banter is as amusing as ever. As always, the crime element is almost incidental. But Spenser’s investigation of whether Ellis Alves—a black thug guilty of any number of crimes—really did murder white co-ed Melissa Henderson allows Parker ample opportunity to indulge his true obsession: how to live an honorable life in a corrupt world. And Spenser’s return to fighting trim after being shot three times— which forces him into a new awareness of his mortality—marks Small Vices as one of Parker’s finest.

Ashworth Hall (Random House, $33.50), the latest in another long-running series—this one featuring Victorian-era London police Supt. Thomas Pitt—is one of author Anne Perry’s best. In 1890, at a countryhouse party with a difference, an English diplomat has gathered Protestant and Catholic participants for secret talks aimed at resolving the “Irish Problem.” Fanatics on both sides are opposed to any compromise, and the diplomat is soon murdered. Perry’s characters and their relationships are elegantly drawn. She is particularly subtle in describing the emotional pressure and confused motives that lead to deadly violence— a theme that she has acknowledged derives from the murder she committed as a 15year-old in New Zealand in 1954. Perry’s impressive grasp of Victorian customs also provides for an absorbing portrait of an English great house a century ago, with its army of servants and its ladies who changed elaborate garments a half-dozen times a day.

Perry’s juxtaposition of that now utterly vanished society with the seemingly eternal “Irish Problem,” gives this fine novel a palpable feeling of tragedy.

Only a few miles but a century’s worth of overwhelming change separate Perry’s world from the bleak and bureaucratic modern London of Frances Fyfield’s Without Consent (Random House, $28.95). A criminal lawyer and author of five previous books about Crown prosecutor Helen West and her lover, police Supt. Geoffrey Bailey, Fyfield commonly writes about the violence men do women, and the poor excuse for justice that the law often provides. This time around, West and Bailey encounter a new,

terrifying kind of rapist, a man whose violations often skirt the law and fill his victims with such shame that they do not complain to police. Fyfield writes compellingly, without sentiment and almost without hope, wrestling with the question of what defines consent—and rape—while inventing a superb narrative with a nicely twisted ending.

The dark realism of Fyfield could not be further from the insouciant intrigue of American TV producer Stephen J. Cannell’s King Con (Hearst, $29). Handsome con man Beano X. Bates is bent on avenging his cousin’s murder by swindling the gangsters responsible. But he needs the help of federal prosecutor Victoria Hart, who also wants revenge on the mobsters—outside the courtroom. Soon, the two are pulling scams in Atlantic City and California. Pursued by thugs and the FBI, their only allies are the grifter’s wacky extended family and his faithful terrier, Rogerthe-Dodger. If this sounds like the pilot for a TV series, it’s not surprising: Cannell is the creator of The Rockford Files, Wiseguy and The A-Team. The book revels in jet-set locations, wise-guy repartee, graphic violence and an astonishing number of synonyms for the male sex organ. Cannell’s dialogue is not as snappy as Elmore Leonard’s, but then whose is? The plot moves along briskly, and figuring out the cons is fun. The inevitable romance is awkward, and the attempts at character development are laughable. But as ATeam alumnus Mr. T might say, “It ain’t Proust, fool!”