Thursday, March 5, 2015

Looking for Clues: The Whites, Die Again and The Skeleton Road

The first thing to say about The Whites (Henry Holt) is that it is by “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.” Now, Richard Price is a long-time and much respected writer of crime fiction (Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life) and film scripts (Sea of Love, Mad Dog and Glory, Shaft, The Wire, the upcoming Child 44). So why Harry Brandt? Authors usually use pseudonyms not so much a disguise as an indication that the book is not like his or her other works, that there is a substantial change in style or substance. There is no such differentiation in Richard Price/Harry Brandt. Both write gritty urban thrillers, police procedurals with high-octane plots, infused with street smarts and salty language. In The Whites, Detective Sergeant Billy Graves is in charge of the Night Watch, a ragtag group of cops who respond to every major crime committed in Manhattan between 1 and 8 a.m. Their job is to secure the crime scene, canvas witnesses and then turn the whole thing over to the day shift. Graves had been tarred by an incident 18 years before, in which he accidentally shot a 10-year-old. Now, after years of nowhere postings, he is perfectly content with his overnight job. He runs his own unit, and he’s more or less free to mind his two sons during the day while his wife, Carmen, works as an emergency-room nurse. So when his squad is called out to Penn Station at 4 a.m. to investigate a stabbing, it’s routine. But the identity of the victim is not routine. He is Jeffrey Bannion, suspect in the brutal murder of a 12-year-old boy in the 1990s, when Graves was a member of the Wild Geese, an elite anti-crime unit not entirely averse to dealing out rough justice. Bannion is the obsession of John Pavlicek, a retired member of the Geese. The cop slang for the object of this obsession is a “White”; all the WGs, including Graves, have one. Not surprisingly, it occurs to Graves that Pavlicek could have knifed Bannion, but the former cop alibis out. Graves keeps poking around, however, and discovers that the Whites of other WGs have died suspiciously. Meanwhile, in a subplot that could support another novel, a vengeful cop, one with a 20-year-old reason to want bloody revenge, is stalking Graves’ wife. This is a harrowing read from beginning to end, enlivened by slick dialogue and a rough-and-ready view of both cops and the mean streets they inhabit.

The story in Tess Gerritsen’s novel Die Again (Ballantine) begins six years ago in Botswana, where a party of tourists – an English action-thriller writer, his wife, a Japanese couple, two South African woman and an American student – are “on safari” with a prototypical “white hunter”and a native tracker guiding them through the dangerous territory’s predatory lions, leopards and hyenas. Within a week, all but two of the group – one lucky, tough-minded woman, who narrates the safari sections, and one vicious, merciless killer – are dead. Meanwhile, in the present, Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and her best friend, medical examiner Maura Isles, are called to the home of famous hunter and taxidermist Leon Gott. Rizzoli and Isles have seen a lot of pretty gruesome crime scenes, but what they find in Gott’s home is easily among the worst: Gott has been strung up by his feet and gutted, his viscera dumped in a garbage can. Not only that, his aren’t the only guts in the bucket, though his is the only body in the house – unless you count the heads of the many animals that Gott has killed and stuffed over the years. The search for the murderer takes Jane and her partner Barry Frost to the cat compound of a Boston zoo, the shooting-gallery basement of shock-jock radio host Jerry O’Brien, on a tour of fringe extremist animal-rights groups, the wilds of Maine and, finally, to South Africa. All the while, single mom Jane must deal with her daughter Regina and with the tensions created by her father, who, after leaving Jane’s mother for a younger woman, has decided that it’s time to move back (though only after the younger woman left him). The police-procedural elements of the story are carefully developed, and the conclusion is unexpected, as you might expect. Altogether, this is another great entry in a great series.

In The Skeleton Road (HarperCollins), by veteran crime-fiction writer Val McDermid, Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, of Edinburgh’s cold-case squad, is called on to investigate a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull. The bones turned up in a roof-top turret on a long-abandoned Gothic school building being inspected with possible renovation in mind. Pirie’s first move, after checking out the death site, is to call forensic anthropologist Dr. River Wilde, “the nearest thing Karen had to a best friend.” What she also has, for the first time in her life, is a great love in Phil Parhatka, a one-time cold-case squadmate, now a detective with the Murder Prevention Team. Together with her green (and not-too-bright) assistant, Detective Constable Jason “the Mint” Murray, Pirie begins the long process of investigating a death from the distant past. First problem: Whose skeleton is it? Meanwhile, two other story strands unspool. Oxford Professor Maggie Blake, a specialist in the Balkan conflicts who lived through the siege of Dubrovnik in the early 1990s. She is turning 50 and still troubled by the loss of her lover, Dimitar Petrovic, known as Mitja, a former general in the Croatian army and United Nations intelligence officer, who walked out on her eight years ago after nearly a decade of blissful living together. Meanwhile, two lackluster war crimes investigators are tasked with tracking down the person who has been stalking and cutting the throats of Serbian war criminals who have escaped prosecution for one reason or another. Their new boss is putting enormous pressure on them to find the assassin, and he thinks he knows who the killer is: Mitja, who went off the grid just about the time the serial murders began. Edinburgh comes alive in McDermid’s work, and she is equally adept at portraying Oxford and Scotland in general, but she’s at her best in the scenes set in the former Yugoslavia, when the case takes Karen and Maggie there, and including Maggie’s memories of life under siege, as her affair with Petrovic begins under such unlikely conditions. But Karen Pirie – middle-aged, somewhat dumpy, smart, stubborn – is an altogether convincing heroine.

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

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