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On Crime

Sifting through a surfeit of clues

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hallie Ephron
March 30, 2008

Friend of the Devil
By Peter Robinson
Morrow, 384 pp., $24.95

An Incomplete Revenge
By Jacqueline Winspear
Holt, 306 pp., $24

Judas Horse
By April Smith
Knopf, 318 pp., $23.95

"She might have been staring out to sea." Yorkshire-born Peter Robinson's "Friend of the Devil" begins with the haunting image of a woman in a wheelchair, sitting perched at the edge of a cliff. She's dead, her throat slit, and a sea gull settles "on her shoulder in a grotesque parody of Long John Silver's parrot."

When Eastvale Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, on loan to the short-handed Yorkshire precinct, gets called to investigate, she's in bed with a hunky young man she barely recognizes ("Her clothes lay strewn across the hardwood floor with the kind of carelessness that suggested desperate and wanton abandon"). Her memory of how she got there is a blur of "fizzy blue drinks with umbrellas" and "flashing lights."

Annie traces the victim to Mapston Hall, a nearby residential-care home, and identifies her as Karen Drew. That morning, staffers tell her, a woman visitor came and took Drew, a paraplegic, out to the cliff walk.

Meanwhile, Annie's former partner, crusty Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, is working with Detective Constable Winsome Jackman to investigate the brutal rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman. She's been found among the tangled back alleys of a neighborhood known as the Maze in Eastvale. Appropriately, the Maze reminds Banks of Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel.

Soon, the two investigations are in full swing in different precincts. Each has a roster of suspects, witnesses, and a colorful contingent of investigating officers. The sheer number of characters and complexity of the plots feels a bit overwhelming at first. But Robinson creates compelling characters that make you care, and by page 50 I couldn't put the book down. After a series of stunning twists - what might, in the hands of a less skilled writer, have felt like coincidences - the investigations converge.

For fans of the rich British storytelling tradition of authors like P. D. James, or readers who just enjoy a great yarn, this is an immensely satisfying novel in a stellar series by a master of the art.

Another writer steeped in the British crime-writing tradition is Jacqueline Winspear. "An Incomplete Revenge" is her fifth novel featuring Maisie Dobbs, a smart, pragmatic private investigator and psychologist with extraordinary empathic sensitivity. Where her countryman Sherlock Holmes might have examined bits of tobacco, Maisie draws inferences from the nuance of a smile or a raised eyebrow.

The time is 1930, hop-picking season in Heronsdene, a small rural community in Kent. The locals' distrust of outsiders - Londoners and gypsies, temporarily working the fields - hangs like a pall over the community. The town has been plagued by fires and petty crimes at this time each year since the Great War, and Maisie has been sent to investigate by a man contemplating the purchase of a local estate and brickworks. Meticulously collecting information on index cards and coding her findings with colored pencil until the evidence begins "falling into place," she traces the trouble back to a zeppelin raid during the war that killed a family of three - an event the locals are curiously reluctant to discuss.

Every page of this novel is dense with affectionately rendered period detail. Winspear deftly intertwines multiple story lines, including glimpses of Maisie's past tragedies and triumphs. The tale becomes increasingly gripping as the novel progresses toward a truly moving ending that holds the promise of redemption. This is a book that rewards the patient reader.

In a thoroughly American-style thriller, April Smith's "Judas Horse" begins with FBI Special Agent Ana Grey preparing to go deep undercover to investigate a violent animal-rights group near Portland, Ore. They are up in arms, literally, over the government's treatment of wild mustangs. Undercover work has been Ana's dream, and this investigation will be personal: One of her closest friends was murdered trying to infiltrate the group.

In the opening chapters, Ana invents a new, ethnically ambiguous identity for herself, channeling her own rebelliousness and Salvadoran roots. The scenes of her transformation and rigorous training had me riveted.

But after about a hundred pages, the book deteriorates. Some scenes devolve into flat synopsis, more like a film treatment than a novel, with sentences so convoluted that they have to be read two or three times. In contrast, one jarring scene is rendered as pure, disembodied dialogue; there's also overwritten description ("Dick Stone's mouth howls in anguish like the silent cavernous winds of hell"). Literary quirks like these make the writing feel undisciplined, repeatedly reminding the reader that there's a writer peeking out from the pages.

Lapses in credibility distract from what might have been a strong story. For instance, a man in a "deafeningly loud" helicopter engages in a conversation with a woman standing on the ground below. Ana, smart as she is, never questions her handlers, who leave her undercover when there are compelling reasons to pull her out.

With "Judas Horse," it's the reader that Smith betrays.

Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style." Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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