by Bruce TierneyOctober 2009
Let’s hear it for the girls
This is a big month for the women of mystery, whose entries in Whodunit? outnumber their male counterparts' by three to one. First up is Sara Paretsky, whose V.I. Warshawski series has entertained readers for the better part of two decades. Her latest, Hardball, is the first Warshawski novel since 2005’s Fire Sale. Hardball finds our Chicago private eye hard at work at the most thankless of detecting jobs—tracing a long-missing person. This case promises to be exceptionally thorny, in that the subject, Lamont Gadden, a black activist, has been missing since the Chicago riots of 1966, following a controversial speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A homicide took place in the crowd that fateful day, and Gadden subsequently disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. As the case develops, Warshawski makes two startling discoveries: 1) there are powerful folks who, for some reason, badly want this case to go away; and 2) her beloved deceased father, by most accounts a stand-up cop, was one of the arresting officers of the aforementioned murder suspect, and was apparently involved in the torture-induced confession that followed. (I should note here that the torture technique known as waterboarding sounds pretty tame in comparison to what is outlined here—let the faint of heart be warned.) Paretsky’s outspoken political views on events both past and present will engage like-minded readers, and likely enrage those of the opposing camp, but it cannot be denied that she is a storyteller of the first order.
A killer returns
Inspector Wexford returns in Ruth Rendell’s latest, The Monster in the Box. A chain of seemingly unrelated murders hits close to the Wexford home when the family’s elderly gardener is slain for no apparent reason. Wexford suspects a wealthy self-made businessman, Eric Targo, who happened to be in the vicinity of the scenes of a pair of homicides early in Wexford’s career. He has no proof against Targo, and when he articulates his reasoning, even to himself, it sounds painfully thin. His biggest reason for suspicion is that the murders stopped when the man moved away years ago, and they resumed shortly after he moved back to Wexford’s town. Still, the nagging feeling will not go away. Moreover, Targo knows that he is the subject of Wexford’s scrutiny, and he misses no chance to taunt and irritate the usually taciturn inspector. And so the cat and mouse game begins, although at times it is difficult to tell just which one is the cat and which the mouse, especially when Targo’s prized pet lion escapes his private menagerie and goes on the rampage, terrorizing the local townspeople. Rendell is in fine form (when hasn’t she been?), as is Wexford, and The Monster in the Box will undoubtedly (and justifiably) rise quickly on bestseller lists both here and in the U.K.
A pretext for murder
The lone male presence in this month’s column (besides, of course, mine) is that of British author Mark Billingham, whose Death Message serves up one of the more original premises in recent memory: a killer sends a text message to police inspector Tom Thorne shortly before each new murder, with a photo or video of his prey in the moments before their deaths. We learn the killer’s identity early on, as does the police inspector, but there is precious little that can be done either to apprehend the suspect or to prevent further killings, as the perpetrator is both clever and motivated. His victims are those he sees as having wronged him, landing him in jail for a crime he did not commit, and then arranging for the “accidental” deaths of his girlfriend and young son. So far, his tally includes a couple of scruffy motorcycle gang leaders and a pair of bent cops, arguably no great loss to society as a whole, but Thorne is chilled to the bone by the identity of the next victim: his friend and co-worker, pathologist Phil Kendricks. Somehow, Thorne must stray far afield of normal police protocols to engage the killer on his own turf, risking both his career and his life in the process. Death Message is just the ticket for the compulsive page-turner, and it will be the rare reader indeed who can resist skipping ahead to see who will be the last man standing!
Mystery of the month
Modern mysteries, unlike their early 20th-century counterparts, tend to identify the villain early on (see examples in my column, at left), then go on to show how the clever detective sorts through clues (and red herrings) to reach the same conclusion that has already been revealed to the reader. That is, of course, not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to be the case nowadays more often than not. Sophie Hannah’s suspense novels, by contrast, reach back to the days of Agatha Christie, where the identity of the miscreant is hidden until the final pages of the book. Hannah’s latest, The Wrong Mother, spins the tale of Sally Thorning, a none-too-likable working mom, and her strange, albeit libidinous, encounter with businessman Mark Bretherick while on holiday. The tryst was to be a one-time affair, as both were (purportedly) happily married, and indeed, a year has gone by without further contact. Then one day, out of the blue, Sally hears Mark’s name on the news; his wife and daughter have been brutally murdered, and there is one other troubling fact: the person pictured on the news program is not the man she knows as Mark Bretherick. His wife and daughter have the same names as her Rendezvous Romeo, his address is the same; everything matches but the face. She can’t very well go to the police with this information, as she has never confessed her amorous sins to her husband, so an anonymous note to the authorities would seem to be the order of the day. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and Sally soon finds herself a victim of attempted murder (a creative attempt at that, pushed from a crowded sidewalk into the path of a moving bus). Woven into the story are the final entries of the dead woman’s diary, a deeply disturbing narrative markedly at odds with her reportedly happy life. The Wrong Mother is an un-put-downable read, and as a $15 paperback, the bargain mystery of the year!