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'Hidden Assassins' is a killer book

The Hidden Assassins, By Robert Wilson, Harcourt, 464 pp., $25

Either mutilation is more common in Seville, Spain, than we know, or Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón is spectacularly unlucky. In the detective's first fictional outing, 2003's "The Blind Man of Seville," he investigated a case in which the corpse had its eyelids removed. In the follow-up, last year's "The Vanished Hands," one of several murder victims was an amateur butcher. This time out, in "The Hidden Assassins," Falcón hits the jackpot: Not only have the victim's hands been removed, his face has been disfigured with acid and he's been scalped.

As regular readers of police procedurals will realize, this makes identifying the victim extremely difficult. To further complicate matters, Falcón's ex-wife appears to be having some kind of breakdown, his ex-girlfriend reappears, and his professional focus is soon directed elsewhere as well, as a terrorist-style bombing takes down an apartment building in a working-class area of the city.

That would be a load for any detective. But Wilson's flawed but sympathetic Falcón is up to the task -- and in Wilson's assured grasp the reader happily comes along.

Falcón is stubborn and hates to let anything go. The bombing takes precedence, but he can't forget that unknown victim, and soon finds himself asking if the two cases could be related. Although the first seems intensely private, and the second has rocked the city, Falcón has reason to wonder. There's a great deal of power at stake: In the wake of the bombing, public fears are skyrocketing, and the political consequences are already in play. There may be motive in all of this for that victim's identity to be obscured.

As the intelligent and sensitive Falcón digs in, he discovers some subtle links and damning truths, but he remains determined to understand at least some of the evil around him. Along the way, the author also lets the inspector progress in his own journey. The revelations of the previous books have left Falcón scared and unsure of himself, and in "The Hidden Assassins" he rebounds a bit more. The good food and drink of Seville help, of course, and with the grotesque crimes, Wilson lets us taste life's pleasures, the food and wine, the old civilized ways of Seville. And, for Falcón, the promise of new love.

Such rewards are hard - earned, both for Falcón and the reader. Extreme, and extremely intimate, violence is Wilson's forte. While this can make for difficult reading, those with the stomach for such details will find that the author uses them to create empathy rather than to shock. In his excellent West African series, for example, Wilson's protagonist Bruce Medway frequently confronts mutilations and torture with the kind of grim humor that makes this anti-hero sympathetic. In the Falcón series, the pain is more personal. Falcón, like the reader, is deeply and appropriately disturbed by the horrors that humans inflict on each other, and the grotesque nature of the crimes underlines his humanity.

In fact, while "The Hidden Assassins" may be the most gruesome of the Falcón books, it is also the warmest. Where the previous Seville books tended toward the political, with a distracting amount of detail, in his third outing Falcón comes to the forefront. Politics matter, particularly as the inspector investigates the complex motives for the bombing, and the repercussions are relevant to our current domestic situation.

But it's the personal that makes this book such an engaging read. Falcón is a good person, striving against inhumane forces. If he doesn't exactly uncover those hidden assassins, he at least makes the case for honest, open relations.

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