Banks is back in 'Affair'

psychologist is 'Suspect'

Crime Fiction

February 27, 2005|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

Strange Affair

By Peter Robinson. William Morrow & Co., 384 pages, $24.95.

When a series has run for almost two decades, it's difficult to evaluate each individual volume as a separate entity. Especially when the quality has first increased and is then maintained at a consistently high level. But Strange Affair, the 14th to star DCI Alan Banks, needs no qualifications -- it's simply a damn fine crime novel. When Banks gets a cryptic phone call from his estranged younger brother Roy, enough alarm bells ring to scuttle his holiday and leave Eastvale behind for London, where he discovers that Roy has simply vanished. Meanwhile, DI Annie Cabbot, Banks' colleague and former lover, investigates the perplexing murder of a young woman forced off the road by a bullet to the head. When the London-based victim's surprising connection is unearthed, Cabbot too heads south, and further intertwining strands bring arms-dealing, family-planning and prostitution-smuggling into the mix. Robinson's even pacing keeps the plot from becoming overly complicated, and shrewdly showcases Banks as a dogged copper who holds family -- even those he thought he barely knew -- very dear. Strange Affair demonstrates exactly why Robinson's recent work is like a master class in crime fiction.

The Narcissist's Daughter

By Craig Holden. Simon & Schuster. 228 pages. $23.

If Charles Webb had crafted his best-selling novel The Graduate as pulp fiction, it might have resembled the storyline of Holden's fifth novel (after 2001's The Jazz Bird): a tale of revenge, perverse family dynamics and betrayal. In late 1970s Ohio, Syd Redding is 23 and a pre-med student working nights at a pathology lab, which is where he encounters the Kesslers: Ted, the head pathologist; Joyce, his nurse wife; and Jessi, their wayward teenage daughter. There's something almost perfunctory in how the entanglements play out, in all of their use / abuse glory (to steal from the Eurythmics) until it's hard to tell who's getting revenge on whom. It's only when Syd and Jessi complete this monstrous circle that violent events are set into motion. The underlying problem of The Narcissist's Daughter may well be given away by the book's title; each character is obsessed with himself or herself, but the motivations for such behavior, especially regarding Syd's revenge fantasies, remain elusive. Holden was likely aiming for more than mere old-fashioned noir, but even on that level he doesn't quite succeed.

Suspect

By Michael Robotham. Doubleday. 336 pages. $24.95.

Dr. Joseph O'Loughlin, the star of Australian-based Robotham's tightly wound debut novel, regularly deals with disordered minds and fragmented people, but his own life is perfectly stable. Of course, all that changes when the psychologist is asked to assist in the investigation of a supposed prostitute's brutal murder, and he recognizes her as Catherine MacBride, a nurse and former patient whose last contact with him turned ugly, nearly ruining his career. But the past threat pales in comparison with what O'Loughlin faces now, battling early-onset Parkinson's, a marriage in crisis, and his later arrest for Catherine's murder when too many coincidences and kept secrets start adding up. Robotham, an accomplished ghostwriter of several celebrity biographies, ratchets up the suspense as O'Loughlin frantically searches for a way out of the mess, hindered by an ailing body and a patient who may know too much about the crime. He's a sympathetic protagonist who has made commonly stupid mistakes -- trusting the wrong people and not trusting his loved ones -- and his motivations are clear and consistent. Suspect is a fine thriller that's already racked up accolades in the United Kingdom and Australia, and deserves similar attention here.

The Devil's Wind

By Richard Rayner. HarperCollins. 352 pages. $24.95.

The postwar mood has been captured to brilliant and tragic excess by writers like James Ellroy and Joseph Kanon. Now U.K.-born, L.A.-dwelling Rayner (known for his memoir The Blue Suit) conjures up his own fully realized vision of that heady period in the 1950s, when opportunity seemed limitless and power was king. Maurice Valentine is a rising star in his chosen profession of architecture, taking baby steps into politics with the aid of his U.S. senator father-in-law. But the veneer of success masks explosive secrets, and when Mallory Walker enters his life, Valentine's surface cool is cruelly stripped away. Her manipulation, cunning and eventual betrayal spark Valentine's quest to discover the real woman, her true motivations and the driving force behind a ferocious need for revenge against the biggest power brokers on the West Coast. Rayner skillfully conveys the attitudes and mores of an era dictated by bomb scares, naming names and political glamour in a terse, almost distant style. Although the pace and characterization don't pick up until the second half, The Devil's Wind is a worthy addition to the libraries of noir-fiction enthusiasts.

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