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BOOK REVIEW / Vermin on the mount: 'Evidence of Blood' - Thomas H Cook: HarperCollins, 15.99

Though 'True Crime' is something of a growth area in publishing, it has never occurred to me to wonder what effect their gruesome researches might have on true-crime writers. I should think the psyche could only take so many trawls through police files, so many condemned-cell interviews, so many speculative calls from publishers about murders in the Maine woods before burnout (or worse) set in. Jackson Kinley is just such a writer, author of definitive studies of the Colin Bright, Mildred Haskell and Willie Connors cases. Neat, orderly, an obsessive jotter-down of business expenses in the little notebook he keeps for the purpose, he clings to precision 'the way another might cling to a log in a maelstrom'. The sense of anomie is strong as he listens to a victim of his latest subject unburdening herself: ' 'I sometimes wish he'd gone ahead and done his worst to me,' she said. Kinley looked at her distantly, remembering. No, you don't. Believe me, No, you don't'.'

Brought up as he was by his grandmother, Granny Dollar, who read him nothing but the Police Gazette, Kinley could only have been a true-crime writer. Or else a cop, like his best friend Ray Tindall, whose sudden death is what jolts Kinley out of his daze and brings him back to his rural birthplace, Sequoyah, Georgia - 'Deliverance country', as he sardonically describes it to his New York friends. A heart attack has felled Ray in the canyon he and Kinley used to explore as kids - the gloomy, oppressive (and, as it turns out, highly symbolic) fault in the mountain that looms over the town.

It was on the mountain, nearly forty years ago, that a teenage girl was murdered. Although all they ever found of her was her bloodsoaked dress, a man called Charles Overton was convicted and executed. It turns out that Ray was having an affair with Overton's daughter Dora, who was born after he went to the electric chair. Dora's unshakable conviction that her father was innocent has prodded Ray into taking another look at the case in his spare time - and, ultimately, killed him, since his heart was not up to whatever he was doing in the canyon.

Kinley, of course, knew some of the dramatis persnae, and half remembers others, and there's enough that's odd about Ray's behaviour to set his investigative antennae humming. Languidly at first, then with growing fascination, he sets off in Ray's footsteps, uncovering cracks in the town's picturesque facade, discovering that even the most trustworthy citizens might have something to hide. Kinley realises that the last time he saw Ray, at Granny Dollar's funeral a couple of months before, he must have had a shrewd idea of what happened. Whatever it was, he kept it to himself, leaving nothing but an inchoate mass of papers, so Kinley has a great deal of teasing-out of clues to do, to the reader's benefit. If this were standard fare, a psychotic hayseed with a shotgun would bust through the door about now and run Kinley out of town, but Cook is much smarter than that; as we get closer to the truth we begin to sense that the one who is going to be most devastated by the final secret is Kinley himself.

It is a measure of the power of this brilliant novel that once I finished it in the small hours it kept me awake for a long time, unable to stop turning the story over in my mind, reliving it almost. When I did finally drop off I found that I'd hijacked one of Kinley's recurring dreams, of struggling through clinging, overgrown vines in the canyon, and a very uncomfortable experience it was too, one that stayed with me over the following days.

Evidence of Blood is not perfect - a couple of questions about plot resolution were among the things that kept me awake, and Kinley's habit of invoking previous cases at moments of stress becomes tiresome. But none of this really gets in the way of supreme enjoyment of a satisfying story, resonantly told - subtle, intelligent, atmospheric, full of surprises, as frighteningly mysterious as mysteries are supposed to be. Cook has apparently twice been nominated for an Edgar Award, and it can't be long before he wins one. Now I'm off to catch up on his previous nine books.