Books: Crime in brief
Sunday 25 April 1999
by Will Christopher Baer
Viking pounds 9.99
Imagine waking up in a bath full of ice in a strange hotel room after a night spent with a $200 whore, minus a kidney and with the wound on your side held together with metal staples. Me, I'd crawl, weeping inconsolably to the nearest A&E. But not Phineas Poe, ex-cop turned murder suspect, turned reluctant kidney donor. Instead he goes for help to Crumb, a tattooist and body piercer who does abortions on the side, at the quaintly named Witch's Teat sex shop, who informs him that in place of the kidney he may be carrying a lethal dose of heroin wrapped in latex which could dissolve at any time. Instead of taking time to assimilate this fairly drastic information, Phineas grabs a pistol and a knife and sets off on a sex and drug-fuelled odyssey after the said organ that leads him from Denver, Colorado to the West Texas town of El Paso.
Written in first-person present tense, with no quotation marks to separate dialogue from narrative, and flashed as "a debut novel which breaks the boundaries of thriller writing" (possibly the three characteristics in a book that set this critic's nerves most on edge), it's so in-your-face as to require a dentist to extract it on the final page. But I grew quite fond of Phineas Poe and hope that maybe he'll return in another book. If he can find the strength.
River of Darkness
by Rennie Airth
Macmillan pounds 15.99
Now it's not like me to go for a British crime novel set in the 1920s and featuring a country house murder. In fact, when I see the expression "Golden Age Mystery" in a publisher's blurb it's more or less guaranteed to have me looking for the discard pile. But I think it's my job at least to give it the opening paragraph test. With River Of Darkness, not only did I get past the first paragraph, but before I knew it I was halfway through the book and finishing it almost in one sitting. This is a golden age mystery with a very contemporary sting in its tail.
Detective Inspector John Madden is a survivor of the trenches of the First World War, but even though he survived the war almost intact, he was permanently scarred by the experience both physically and mentally. So when a family is brutally murdered in a mansion in the Surrey countryside close to Guildford, and Madden is sent down from Scotland Yard with his green young assistant Billy Styles, it seems to the senior detective that he has seen the stamp of the killer's modus operandi before. It bears all the hallmarks of a soldier whose skills had been honed in the hell of the trenches. Of course his superiors disagree, and it takes several more murders and attempted murders to prove Madden correct.
Airth beautifully captures the feeling of summer life in the Home Counties between the world wars, its sleepy idyll brutally disturbed by killings of a particularly savage nature.
Rivers Of Darkness is a modern psychological serial-killer novel set almost 80 years ago, when God was in His heaven and people knew their place in the scheme of things. But change was in the air: communications were improving, forensic science was crawling out of its infancy, and the days of the village bobby on his bike were numbered.
If only every golden age crime novel could be as good as this.
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