You Are Dead by Peter James published by Macmillan
The Samaritan by Mason Cross published by Orion
The Killing Lessons by Saul Black published by Orion
Black Run by Antonio Manzini published by Fourth Estate UK, Harper US
Fashions come and go in crime writing as in everything else, and it seems that serial killing is back in vogue. Four of my five very different writers have chosen this sub-genre for their continuing characters’ latest adventure.
Kate Rhodes has the appealing forensic psychiatrist Dr Alice Quentin called in by one victim’s family to make up for the police’s failure to find their daughter’s attacker. He is particularly brutal, taking some of his satisfaction from slicing off the faces of his victims before drowning – or attempting to drown – them. Alice continues to have problems of her own as she tries to solve everyone else’s. Her lover has gone back to his wife, but she still has to work with him. Her highly critical mother, who has always had control issues, now has Parkinson’s, which is slowly taking all physical control from her in a kind of cosmically cruel punishment.
The delights of this series are Alice’s character, the credible professional background, and the evocative descriptions of London. The set-up in this case is excellent, and there is much interesting background about the history and archaeology of London’s river, but the eventual explanation is a bit less satisfactory.
Peter James’s Brighton cop, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, is sucked into the hunt for his serial killer when a young man reports the disappearance of his fiancée just after he heard her scream down the phone as she drove into an underground car park. This is a great start to the novel, and Peter James’s familiar mixture of exhaustive research and convincing police procedure is in full evidence here. Grace’s personal life is still complicated by the possible reappearance of his long departed first wife just as his relationship with his second, Chloe, and their baby come under strain. They’re moving house and every time he intends to join in with the domestic work, some wretched criminal drags him away from home again. Once more the set-up is more convincing than the ultimate revelation of what lies behind the killer’s psychopathic behaviour.
In The Samaritan Mason Cross follows the Lee Child recipe for a successful thriller, bringing in a lone saviour, who appears as from nowhere to take on the vilest of criminals and disappears again when order has been restored. In this case of a serial killer who has left tortured bodies across several states in America, all with characteristic knife marks in their slit throats, the man known as Carter Blake joins forces with an agreeable woman cop, Detective Jessica Allen, who is a great deal more intelligent and determined than her male partner. Together she and Blake fight trouble from all sides, while much blood is shed.
Saul Black also offers a great deal of blood in The Killing Lessons. This novel opens with a description of almost ideal domestic goodness, so that the brutality visited upon a small family on the edge of a snowy forest in Colorado is intensely shocking. I found parts of the novel unbearable to read, but its pull is undeniable, and the eventual explanation of what lay behind the psychopath’s behaviour is more convincing than most. The police officer at the centre of the investigation displays an equally believable mixture of warmth and despair, which builds her private life into an important part of the narrative.
After all these serial killers enjoying their protracted games of torture, rape and death, it was something of a relief to join Antonio Manzini’s rebarbative Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone in Black Run. Schiavone is a Roman through and through, but he has been sent to take charge of the police in Aosta. He hates the mountains, the cold, the snow, the work, his colleagues and pretty much everything that happens to him. A body is discovered in the snow above the resort of Champoluc, mashed to pieces by the great treads of the snowcat that has been driven up and down the pistes to smooth them out for tomorrow’s skiers. Champoluc is small and everyone who lives there is either related to everyone else or has known them since they were at school together. They provide, therefore, a kind of Agatha Christie cast of possible suspects. Schiavone’s investigation is revealed in parallel with his own gradual acclimatization to his new life. He acquires more appropriate clothes than his Roman elegance allowed; he finds some people he can like; he uses his undoubted brains and experience to good, if unconventional, effect; and the twist at the end is both unexpected and moving. The translation by Antony Shugaar is seamless; there are good jokes; and the setting is beautiful. This all adds up to an intelligent entertainment, especially for those who prefer their crime without too much agony and gore.