Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sleuths: Peter Robinson's Abattoir Blues, John Sandford's Deadline and Deborah Crombie's To Dwell In Darkness

One of the things I like best about Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire-based series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks is its terrific ensemble cast, especially the ambitious and troubled DI Annie Cabbot (Banks’s on-again, off-again lover) and tall, beautiful Jamaican immigrant DS Winsome Jackman. Even such relatively minor regular characters as DCs Dougal Wilson and Gerry Masterson, Area Commander Catherine Gervaise, and London DCS Richard (Dirty Dick) Burgess – not to mention the various bad guys, witnesses and victims – are well drawn and utterly believable. As Abattoir Blues opens, army veteran Terry Gilchrist’s dog apparently discovers a large bloodstain – and what appears to be brain matter – in the hangar of a long-abandoned airfield. Meanwhile, Cabbot and Wilson are investigating the case of a stolen tractor, which Cabbot maintains is no job for the Homicide and Major Crimes unit. But as Wilson points out, the new police commissioner thinks rural crime is major. Also, it is a very expensive tractor. As those two get on with their investigation, Jackman heads for the hangar to check out the bloodstain. Cabbot and Wilson end up seeking two young men who may be connected to the tractor-theft, and who are now missing. Jackman and Banks’s inquiries soon cross paths with Cabbot and Wilson’s, especially when a horrible truck accident during a sudden snowstorm produces a particularly grisly discovery. The investigation takes Banks and his team all over the countryside, but also into the worlds of high finance, hobby farming, meat rendering, smuggling, property development and, as unlikely as it sounds, spelunking. And while all that is going on, we see some serious interest developing between Winsome and former soldier Gilchrist. Keep an eye on them in future novels.

In John Sandford's Deadline, Minnesota cop Virgil Flowers gets a call from old fishing buddy Johnson Johnson, who wants him to help track down a gang that has been stealing local dogs, apparently selling some to hunters and others to medical-research facilities. Local dog-owners are beginning to organize vigilante posses to “solve” the problem their own way, so the situation is urgent. Meanwhile, the Buchanan County Consolidated School Board is voting on a motion to kill a local reporter, who is about to blow the whistle on their practice of skimming a million dollars a year from the school’s budget. The motion to murder passes unanimously. In the course of the dog-theft investigation, Virgil and Johnson come upon a methamphetamine lab deep in the woods, and enlist the services of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. While laying in wait for the meth-makers, they all hear dogs barking across the valley, but repeated searches find nothing. Then Virgil receives a call from his boss at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas Davenport – the central character in yet another series of murder mysteries by Sandford – telling him of the reporter’s death and assigning him to look into it. It gives nothing away to say that Virgil eventually tracks down the murderers and the dogs; the conclusion of the canine side of the story is spectacular, a deeply satisfying laugh riot. Virgil Flowers – laconic, easygoing, a longhaired country boy in cowboy boots – is one of the most interesting characters in crime fiction. Just as intriguing and amusing are the rural communities that form the lively background for Sandford’s stories, and Virgil’s friends and lovers: He is now living with Ma Nobles, a.k.a. Frankie, the spicy serial single mother he tangled with in a previous novel; and small-town entrepreneur and outdoorsman Johnson Johnson (so named because his father liked outboard motors; his brother is named Mercury) could easily support a series of his own.

In Deborah Crombie’s newest crime thriller, To Dwell in Darkness, the series’ central character, Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, has recently returned from paternity leave to find that he had been transferred from the homicide squad at Scotland Yard headquarters to the major-incident unit at Holborn Police Station. It’s definitely a demotion, but his boss has been called abroad to deal with a family emergency, and no explanation is forthcoming. Furthermore, his longtime partner, Detective Sergeant Doug Cullen, has been moved to a data-entry job, ostensibly because he is recovering from an ankle injury. Then, one cold March day, Kincaid and his new team are called to a bombing at historic, newly restored St. Pancras Station, where a musical duo is presenting a free concert. Coincidentally, Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot, a friend of Kincaid’s and a colleague of his wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, is on the scene when the explosion happens. Several people are injured, but the only dead victim is the young man who pulled the pin on what turns out to have been a phosphorus grenade. He was taking part in an anti-developer protest meant to take advantage of the presence of a crowd, and the other protesters insist he had intended merely to set off a smoke bomb. Kincaid’s investigation, aided by Doug Cullen, Melody and Gemma, uncovers many pieces that don’t quite seem to fit together, especially concerning the mysterious bystander who assisted Melody at the scene of the bombing only to vanish immediately afterward. The protesters are an oddball collection of slackers, students and passionate believers, under the sway of an angry leader who provides food and shelter in return for unquestioning loyalty. The group had been jolted a couple of months earlier by the suicide of one of its members. And throughout the narrative, Crombie weaves a sub-plot about one of the protesters, an older man with an apparent wealth of protest experience, who proves to be much more than he seems. As well, Gemma is desperately trying to make the case against electronics-shop clerk Dillon Underwood in the kidnap, rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl. And, of course, there is the stray cat – and four kittens – that Gemma’s son, Kit, brings into the house, and the strange role they play in solving a death.

– Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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