October 16, 2017

The latest addition to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series

Department Q: The Scarred Woman by Jussi Adler-OlsenThe Scarred Woman (Department Q #7) by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@ (3 out of 5)

The Scarred Woman is the seventh novel in Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s series about Danish detectives holed up in the basement of Copenhagen’s police headquarters, ostensibly to work on cold cases. Like the six books that preceded it, it tells the story of how the small team in Department Q takes on several homicide cases simultaneously and discovers—lo and behold!—that they’re all connected. In the process, all three of Detective Carl Mørck’s “assistants,” Asaad, Rose, and Gordon, manage to infuriate and astound him in new and sometimes highly creative ways. It’s just possible, we might guess, that all three of them are at least as smart as he is, if not more so. Meanwhile, Mørck infuriates his own boss, and practically everyone else in the police force. He’s always in trouble for insubordination, shaming his superiors, defying orders, stealing someone else’s cases, or simply showing up all his colleagues with his (or perhaps his team’s) brilliance. But somehow he always manages to evade being fired.

The Scarred Woman merges an in-depth exploration of Rose’s mental illness with a tale of the team’s investigation into three homicide cases and a night club heist. We’ve known for some time that Rose is not well. Now, we learn just how seriously ill she really is.

The titles of the six previous novels in Adler-Olsen’s series all relate closely to the contents. But I can’t figure out who “the scarred woman” is. I’m also put off by the author’s exaggerated portrayal of so many of his characters. More than in the previous novels in the Department Q series, several of the key figures in the story come across as cartoonish. One, Rose’s father, is particularly difficult to believe. Apparently, Adler-Olsen was off his game when he wrote this one.

Oh, and one more thing: the author’s writing displays a bonehead error that any competent editor or translator (or, for that matter, the author himself) should have caught: again and again, his characters address each other by name. Obviously, Adler-Olsen wants to be sure the reader understands who’s speaking to whom—or perhaps simply to remind himself. But there are far better ways to achieve that; more attentive novelists have found ways. It was this unfortunate error, as much as anything else, that caused me to stop reading Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc detective series set in Paris. I find the practice extremely annoying.

Previously, I’ve reviewed all six of the earlier novels in this series, and all of them more favorably. You can access all six of them here or by searching on this site for the author’s name. You might also want to take a look at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

October 9, 2017

Michael Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel: the backstory

Harry Bosch novel - the black echo - michael connellyThe Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1) by Michael Connelly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Of the thirty-one novels Michael Connelly has written to date since 1992, twenty feature LAPD detective Harry Bosch. If you’ve only read one or more of the most recent entries in the series, you may be interested to know that from his first appearance in fiction, Bosch’s character, the rudiments of the formula Connelly employs throughout, and some of the characters who follow him throughout the series all are on display.

In The Black Echo, Harry is a twenty-year veteran of the force, “the famous Harry Bosch, detective superstar, a couple books written about his cases. TV movie. A spinoff series.” He is “an outsider in an insider’s job.” Harry has bought a house in the hills with money he received for the film made about his work, and he has already alienated most of the cops who work with him, especially the brass in LAPD headquarters at Parker Center. He is under investigation by Internal Affairs, not for the first time and certainly not for the last.

The Black Echo, the first Harry Bosch novel, tells the tale of a protracted and difficult investigation into a daring year-old bank heist. As the investigation unfolds, complications steadily arise. Harry is doggedly pursued by two thuggish detectives from Internal Affairs. Key characters are murdered. Harry becomes close to Eleanor Wish, the FBI special agent with whom he is paired in the investigation. (In later novels, she will become his wife and mother of his daughter.) And the case takes on implications that go far beyond Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing and suspenseful story.

More importantly, however, The Black Echo serves to provide the backstory about Harry’s combat experience in Vietnam early in the 1970s. The “black echo” of the title crops up again and again, reflecting Harry’s deployment as a “tunnel rat” pursuing Vietcong soldiers through the network of tunnels they have dug throughout much of the country. “Out of the blue and into the black is what they called going into a tunnel,” Connelly writes. “Each one was a black echo. Nothing but death in there. But, still, they went.”

Harry explains further in a conversation with Eleanor: “It was the darkness, the damp emptiness you’d feel when you were down there alone in those tunnels. It was like you were in a place where you felt dead and buried in the dark. But you were alive. And you were scared. Your own breath kind of echoed in the darkness, loud enough to give you away. Or so you thought. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just . . . the black echo.”

You may also be interested in my review of a later book in the series. It’s at Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel? For reviews of other enjoyable novels in this genre, see 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).

September 26, 2017

In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi

top Nazis in Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Prussian Blue (Bernie Gunther #12), by Philip Kerr

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In a series of twelve novels to date, British author Philip Kerr has examined the boundless cruelty and corruption that reigned in Nazi Germany. Kerr has done his research. Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical—what used to be called a “wise guy”—who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. And he repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

In Prussian Blue, the twelfth novel in the series, the scene shifts back and forth from 1956 to 1939. In ’56, Bernie has been working under a false name as the concierge at the most exclusive hotel on the Riviera. Invited to dinner at another expensive hotel, he finds himself confronting General Erich Mielke, the thoroughly unsavory character who ran the Stasi in Communist East Germany. Mielke threatens to kill Bernie’s estranged wife unless he consents to travel to England and assassinate a Stasi agent there (one of the many women he has bedded). Bernie has done a lot of things, but assassination is out of the question. When he soon afterwards escapes the handlers Mielke has assigned to him, Bernie sets out on a desperate flight by train, automobile, bicycle, and foot in hopes of hiding out in West Germany. The squad of handlers is run by Friedrich Korsch, a former Nazi who had served as Bernie’s assistant on a huge murder case in 1939. Korsch’s reappearance calls up memories of that case, which involved a daisy chain of top Nazi officials. In one flashback after another, we meet Reinhard Heydrich, Martin Bormann, Rudolf Hess, and other top Nazis, including Bormann’s younger brother, Albert. Other key officials, including Adolf Hitler himself, remain behind the curtain, stage right.

All the preceding entries in the Bernie Gunther series speed along at a fast clip, accelerated by surprising bouts of action and Bernie’s nonstop wise-guy banter. The suspense is palpable. The only recurring flaw is that the dialogue is sometimes simply too smooth, witty, and cynical. However, Prussian Blue disappoints for two reasons: Bernie’s flight from the Stasi seems endless and becomes tedious after awhile, and both his dialogue and his private thoughts run on far too long. On several occasions, I found myself getting impatient, wishing for an editor: this book could have been about one-third shorter. It’s still worth reading for the historical perspective on the Nazi leadership.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bernie Gunther series and want to read one of the better entries, go to Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks or Mass murder in the Katyn Forest. If your taste runs to detective fiction, see My 15 favorite detective novels.

September 18, 2017

A school shooting, 60s radicals, and the Holocaust

Alex Delaware tackles a school shootingTime Bomb (Alex Delaware #5), by Jonathan Kellerman

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Child psychologist Jonathan Kellerman writes complex murder mysteries featuring his alter ego, Alex Delaware. There are 32 such novels to date. Time Bomb, published in 1990, was the fifth in the series—and the first I found disappointing.

The set-up in Time Bomb is much like that of the earlier entries: to help children after a school shooting, Alex finds himself drawn further and further into a murder mystery. That seemingly straightforward mystery quickly morphs into a complex case that heads off in several seemingly unrelated directions. Working with his friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis—though taking the lead himself—Alex weaves these disparate threads into a logical set of relationships that don’t become clear until the end of the book.

As in the preceding novels, the tension steadily mounts, the complexities become progressively more confusing, and both Alex and Milo’s lives are threatened, but all comes out well following a violent climax. That school shooting turns out to have been far more complicated than it seemed at first. Unfortunately, in a way that’s disturbingly reminiscent of the formulaic whodunits of Agatha Christie and her ilk, sorting it all out at the end requires far too much explanation. And one central character demonstrates technological capabilities that might well have been within the reach of the National Security Agency in 1988 but were surely out of reach of any individual.

Despite these disappointments, reading the novel brings rewards. Kellerman’s research into the Holocaust, though it reveals nothing new, is well done. His exploration of the history of neo-Nazi activities in the United States is engaging. The insight Kellerman offers about how children react to trauma is obviously on point. And it’s always a pleasure to learn more about the work of Alex Delaware, which surely reflects the author’s personal experience.

For a review of another Alex Delaware novel that I enjoyed a lot more, see This complex murder mystery hinges on the symptoms of schizophrenia. You might also be interested in my reviews of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

September 14, 2017

Dr. Siri Paiboun and the rat catchers at the 1980 Moscow Olympics

Dr. Siri Paiboun at the 1980 OlympicsThe Rat Catchers’ Olympics (Dr. Siri Paiboun #12), by Colin Cotterill

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A book’s title serves three functions: first, to catch a reader’s attention; second, to signal something about the book’s contents; and, third, at least in some cases, to convey a sense of the style or approach the author will take. Colin Cotterill‘s The Rat Catchers’ Olympics admirably accomplishes all three objectives. Thus, as you might guess, this is a comic novel, even though it’s the twelfth in a series of what are marketed as mystery novels. The book is actually, at least in part, about a fictional event at the 1980 Olympics in which rat catchers competed with one another—to catch rats. And, clearly, none of this is to be taken seriously.

Dr. Siri Paiboun, formerly the national coroner of Laos, is now in his seventies and retired. (Apparently, he was the country’s only coroner.) It’s 1980, and Jimmy Carter has just canceled US participation in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and persuaded sixty other countries to join the boycott. To help fill the holes in the Olympics roster, the Brezhnev regime has invited small countries that could never compete at the Olympic level to come to Moscow. Laos—formally the Laos Democratic People’s Republic—is among those countries. Laos has no hope of winning any medals. The members of the country’s small team will be happy if they can simply finish their events.

Dr. Paiboun’s best friend, former Politburo member Civilai, has been named the head of the Olympic delegation. Dr. Paiboun joins as the team physician, traveling with his formidable wife, a tough former intelligence officer. These three, together with a police officer back in Vientiane, collaborate on an investigation into a murder, a planned assassination, and other assorted misdeeds. It’s a lot of fun, and funny almost all the way. But the author has saved the most fun until close to the end, when three Olympians, all professional rat catchers in their countries, compete to catch the most rats.

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics is the most enjoyable by far of the novels in the series. I found some of the earlier entries to be tedious. They were heavily dominated by references to the supernatural, which I found annoying. Mystical and mysterious things happen in this book, too. But it’s easy enough to shrug them off as just more examples of the book’s humor.

My review of the first book in this series is at A murder mystery set in Communist Laos in the 1970s. You’ll find reviews of other series of crime novels at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.



September 11, 2017

From a bestselling Danish author, an intriguing detective novel

cover of The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-OlsenThe Hanging Girl (Department Q #6), by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In 1997, a beautiful 19-year-old schoolgirl is killed by a hit-and-run driver on a road near the school she’s attending. Somehow, her body is throw up fourteen feet into a tree, where it remains hanging until a local police officer discovers her days later. The officer plunges into an obsessive investigation into her murder that spans nearly two decades. In the process, he drives his wife and son away and alienates everyone else around him. Now, in 2014, he calls detective Carl Mørck of the famous Department Q in Copenhagen in hopes Carl will take up the case. Carl, predictably, rude as ever, hangs up on him.

Of course, we readers know well that Department Q will, in fact, take on the case. Carl is forced to do so the following day when his assistant, Rose, guilt-trips him with the accusation that his refusal to help the man led to his suicide. The team’s one-day exploratory visit to the distant Baltic Sea island of Bornholm devolves into an investigation that drags on for weeks. Painstakingly, Carl and his staff pursue one fruitless lead after another—until, at long last, their persistence begins to pay off.

Meanwhile, a religious cult led by a sex-crazed charismatic man is thriving, first in the Danish countryside and then in Sweden. “Atu Abanashamash Dumuzi”—obviously not his name at birth—leads a group of several dozen misfits pursuing the belief that all religions have a common origin in sun-worship. Their operations center is called the Nature Absorption Academy. The Academy is run in practice by a fiercely protective Finnish woman named Pirjo Abanashamash Dumuzi. Though the two aren’t married, Pirjo desperately wants to bear a child with Atu. And she is clearly prepared to murder any woman who threatens her primacy in the cult. “Pirjo became the last remaining disciple who’d followed Atu Abanashamash Dumuzi from the beginning, when he’d been in a completely different place in life and was called Frank.”

Unsurprisingly, these two threads of the plot will converge, but that’s a long time coming. Suspense builds all the way. And things do not turn out the way a reader will suspect.

The Hanging Girl is the sixth of the bestselling Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s Department Q novels, and the sixth I’ve read. Adler-Olsen does a brilliant job with plotting, and his books cast a spotlight on Danish society that I find intriguing. In the earlier Department Q novels, I was charmed by the three characters who comprise the department: Deputy Chief Inspector Carl Mørck and his two (now three) assistants, Assad, Rose, and Gordon. All four of these people are annoying, each in their own way. And I must admit that I’m tiring of their antics. The Hanging Girl works nonetheless because the novel is so cleverly plotted and the author’s research into religious cults has turned up so much fascinating information.

For my reviews of two of the earlier books in the Department Q series, see A twisted tale of violence and murder in Denmark and A captivating tale of religious fanaticism, blackmail, and serial murder. You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

September 4, 2017

Tough female cop takes on a Mexican cartel

tough female copThe Dime, by Kathleen Kent

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Elizabeth (“Betty”) Rhyzyk is a narcotics detective on the Dallas Police Force. She’s a ten-year veteran, transplanted from Brooklyn. Betty comes from a family of Polish-American cops and is proud of her heritage. She has bright red hair, is nearly six feet tall—and graduated at the top of her class in the police academy back in Brooklyn. Betty is a lesbian and lives with her girlfriend, Jackie, a pediatric radiologist in a large Dallas hospital. But the male cops who work with her have long since learned that she won’t take any crap from them. In truth, she can probably best almost any of them in a fight.

Betty and her partner, Seth, are on a long stakeout at the home of a major cocaine and meth distributor. They’re “waiting for the arrival of the biggest cocaine supplier to North Texas, one Tomás ‘El Gitano’ (Gypsy) Ruiz, a Mexican national” representing the second-largest cartel south of the border. But the situation quickly spins out of control when one of the distributor’s neighbors calls the cops because he’s locked his dog in the back of his car on a fiercely hot day. So, when El Gitano finally arrives, he sees the distributor talking to a patrolman on his front porch—and machine-guns the two men, the neighbor, and one of the surveillance vans. The result: three dead, and one wounded young narcotics officer in the van.

These circumstances set off a complex investigation involving not just the narcotics squad but the homicide bureau as well—and the body count mounts steadily as Betty and her colleagues slowly make progress toward tracking down Ruiz. Little do they know, however, that they are about to stumble into a truly nightmarish encounter with a drug supplier even more fearsome than the cartel.

So goes the tale in The Dime, a crime thriller by Dallas author Kathleen Kent. As she explains in an author’s note, she had previously written only historical fiction. But a friend talked her into contributing a story to an anthology he was editing of local crime stories. And that short story gave rise to The Dime. Readers of police dramas can be thankful it did. The Dime is powerfully written, beautifully plotted, and suspenseful to the end.

For reviews of other novels in the same genre, see My 15 favorite detective novels. You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


August 24, 2017

In Virgil Flowers’ debut, arson, multiple murder, and a right-wing preacher

right-wing preacherDark of the Moon (Virgil Flowers #1), by John Sandford

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Virgil Flowers is a horndog who feels compelled to chase every pretty woman under the age of 50. Though his own faith rejects Jesus, he’s “the son of a Presbyterian minister and a professor of engineering, who saw in God the Great Engineer and believed as devoutly as her husband.” He’s been married and divorced three times, but “he didn’t want to be a four-time loser, so he stopped getting married.” He’s also a university graduate with a degree in environmental science, an outdoorsman, a published writer for hunting and fishing magazines, and an aspiring short story writer. And, oh by the way, he’s one of the top investigators in the fictional Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) known far and wide in the bureau as “that f***ing Flowers.” In Dark of the Moon, John Sandford presents Virgil in a starring role in the first entry in his own series, a spinoff from his wildly popular “Prey” novels featuring Lucas Davenport. To date, there are twenty-seven of the latter and ten in the Virgil Flowers series. There’s no end in sight for either series.

As Virgil heads home in his truck, he spots a roaring fire on a hilltop along the way. Rushing to the scene, he encounters fire trucks, several sheriff’s deputies, and a crowd of onlookers. An enormous house atop the hill is in the process of being reduced to rubble as the firefighters stand aside, unable to do a thing about it. As Virgil knows—as everyone in the region knows—the house is the property of Bill Judd Sr., an aging multimillionaire hated by virtually everyone within driving distance. More than twenty years earlier, Judd had been the perpetrator of a Ponzi scheme that bankrupted many of his neighbors. Had someone finally gotten even? That was the conventional wisdom in the neighboring town of Bluestem. But this is not Virgil’s case.

At first, it appears that the incident at the Judd house was simply a matter of arson. Perhaps the old man torched the place and has run off to Bora-Bora to enjoy the millions he stole. But it soon becomes clear to Virgil and the local investigators that Judd died a horrible death in the fire, a victim of murder. In fact, Sandford had already told us that the old man was viciously killed by someone named Moonie and that there are more murders to come.

Judd’s son, Bill Judd Jr., “a greedy, grasping, sociopathic businessman” like his father, is frantic for the case to be closed so he can inherit the estate. However, a young woman named Jesse Laymon steps forward claiming to be a natural daughter of Judd Sr. Clearly, this will slow things down, complicating Jr’s desperate grab for his father’s money. It now seems to be clear that money lies at the heart of this case. Or does it? Somehow, a drug-dealing right-wing preacher seems to have a connection to the case.

Not long afterward, as we expect, a brutal double murder takes place in Bluestem. The victims are a couple in their eighties, contemporaries of Bill Judd Sr. Sheriff Jim Stryker, a friend of Virgil’s, is at a standstill in his investigation in both cases, so he calls in the state’s equivalent of the FBI, the BCA in the person of Virgil Flowers, to help him with what appears to be the work of a ritual killer. Bluestem is in Virgil’s territory, and he’s soon on the scene. Virgil quickly begins to wonder whether the two cases are connected—all three victims were in their eighties. However, if there is a connection, it will take Virgil a lot of work to bring it out into the open.

Meanwhile, Virgil becomes involved romantically with Joanie Stryker, the sheriff’s beautiful younger sister. The sheriff himself begins developing a relationship with Jesse Laymon. It doesn’t take long for Virgil to realize that practically everyone he meets in Bluestem, including Judd Jr., Joanie, and Jesse, is a suspect in what has become clear to him is a triple homicide. Everyone seems to have a motive. Then two other murders come to light, pressure from the news media and Virgil’s boss begins to mount, and Virgil’s investigation ranges further afield to include that fanatical right-wing preacher who is suspected of drug-dealing, the local newspaper editor, and the sheriff himself. It will take every ounce of Virgil’s considerable intelligence and insight to untangle the mystery. He can only hope that in the process he won’t alienate everyone in town.

It’s easy to understand how John Sandford parlayed this gem of a mystery novel into his second popular series. The characters are believable, the dialogue sparkles, and the suspense builds to a tragic climax.

For more books like this, go to My 15 favorite detective novels. For a review of a more recent Virgil Flowers novel, click here: Virgil Flowers, two rare tigers, and exploited migrant workers.

August 14, 2017

Michael Connelly introduces a tough new lead character in “The Late Show”

Late ShowThe Late Show, by Michael Connelly

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

After writing 29 other thrillers, including 20 in the venerable Harry Bosch series and five of the Lincoln Lawyer novels, Michael Connelly has introduced a new lead character. Is this the beginning of a new series? We’ll have to see. But Renee Ballard is certainly interesting enough.

Detective Renee Ballard is a fourteen-year veteran of the LAPD, ten of them as a detective. She works “the late show,” the midnight shift in Hollywood. Two years earlier, she had lodged a sexual harassment complaint against her boss, Lieutenant Robert Olivas. She’d lost the case when her ambitious partner, Ken Chastain, refused to back up her claim by testifying to what he’d seen with his own eyes. Olivas had then had Ballard assigned to the late show, which is regarded as punishment.

Ballard is a hothead, quick to anger and slow to forgive a slight. Ignored by her mother, she had grown up sleeping on beaches with her father as she followed him around the world to surfing competitions. As a child, she saw him disappear under a wave, never to resurface. When Ballard was a teenager, her grandmother rescued her from the rough life in Hawaii and brought her to live with her in Ventura, California. She acquired a degree in journalism and worked for a time as a reporter. As her dark skin and distinctive features show, Ballard is at least partially Hawaiian or Polynesian. To this day, she makes a practice of heading out to Venice Beach with her dog Lola for an hour of paddleboarding after her shift. Her only permanent address is her grandmother’s home in Ventura.

Ballard’s partner, Detective John Jenkins, is marking time until retirement. But he’s protective of her. When he sees her working a case she’s been repeatedly warned to avoid, he tells her, “There’s this saying they have about conformist society: The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.”

“Okay, so what are you saying?” Ballard asks.

“I’m saying there’s a lot of guys in this department with hammers. Watch yourself.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“I don’t know—sometimes I think I do.”

Though Ballard’s ornery flouting of authority seems to be a prerequisite for a lead character in a detective novel—Connelly’s Harry Bosch is an obvious example—the formula works well here. Ballard is a complex and interesting person.

In The Late Show, Ballard takes on three separate cases simultaneously, demonstrating her shrewdness as an investigator and her refusal to give up even when ordered to do so by her superiors. First is a case of credit card fraud. Though the effort was unsuccessful, Ballard insists on tracking down the perpetrator by working the phone. In the second, far more serious case, a cross-dressing male prostitute is found brutally beaten with brass knuckles and left for dead. Ballard sets out to find the man responsible. But the biggest case is the third. Five people have been shot and killed at close range in a Hollywood nightclub. Three of the victims were anything but innocent: all were career criminals. Ballard seizes an opportunity to look for the killer of a young waitress who was one of the other victims.

Every one of these three cases is fascinating in its own right. In Michael Connelly’s hands, the three are seamlessly woven together in an increasingly tense and suspenseful story that is likely to satisfy any fan of police procedurals. Having written for decades about crime in Los Angeles, Connelly is intimately familiar with the ways of the LAPD. The result is a thoroughly engrossing and convincing tale of crime and punishment through the eyes of an intelligent and caring police officer.

For my review of one of the Harry Bosch novels, go to Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel? For another prominent writer’s perspective on policing in Los Angeles, see Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Police Saga. For reviews of dozens of other excellent novels in this genre, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.



August 7, 2017

An Elvis-themed restaurant, a five-year-old murder, and Inspector Rebus

Elvis-themed restaurantThe Black Book (Inspector Rebus #5), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Read any one of the 21 novels published to date in the Inspector Rebus series, and you will have no doubt that Ian Rankin, is a native Scotsman, and proud of it. You’ll rush to the dictionary from time to time to look up strange words known only to the inhabitants of that cold and rainy land. And you’ll read about people actually eating haggis—willingly! (They even ask for it in restaurants!) This is all evident in The Black Book, the fifth entry in the series, a more mature effort than the four novels that precede it. John Rebus seems to have grown into his skin. His relationships with his colleagues in the Edinburgh police have fallen into a familiar pattern. And the underlying mystery is, characteristically, impenetrable until close to the end. Rankin is in fine form in this excellent example of detective fiction.

The standout elements of The Black Book are an Elvis-themed restaurant (in Edinburgh!), the complex and sometimes treacherous internal activity of the Edinburgh police, and our first extensive exposure to Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, John Rebus’ white whale. (Yes, that restaurant is fictional.)

The story opens as a young man staggers into a butcher shop with a knife wound in his abdomen. He refuses to reveal anything about how he came to be stabbed, or by whom, and the butcher—his uncle, it later develops—professes to know nothing, or even to recognize the younger man. While Inspector Rebus and his two charges, Detective Sergeant Brian Holmes and Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke, labor to learn what happened, another attack takes place, much closer to home. As Holmes is leaving his favorite hangout, an Elvis-themed restaurant, he is savagely hit on the head in the parking lot and sent into a coma. Eventually, Rebus learns from Holmes’ girlfriend that he had been preoccupied lately because of something he had recorded in his notebook, the “black book.” Rebus soon decodes Holmes’ cryptic abbreviations, learning that Holmes had been on the trail of information about a five-year-old unsolved murder. This is the mystery that is central to the plot.

As Rebus and Clarke work in secret to unravel the mystery—they have been assigned to what they regard as a futile surveillance detail—it quickly becomes clear that the city’s rich and powerful are somehow involved. Apparently, both the owner of the prosperous local brewery and his son as well as Big Ger Cafferty seem to have been present in the building where the murder took place. Rebus’ dogged attempts to learn the truth about what happened there five years ago expose him and his brother to vicious attacks and result in getting him suspended from the police force. Of course, all will work out in the end. The Black Book is, after all, a murder mystery in a series. The hero must triumph in the end so the author may tell another tale.

I’ve reviewed a number of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. One is at Devil worship and murder in this early Inspector Rebus novel. Another is here: Inspector Rebus goes to London to catch a serial murderer. These are among scores of detective novels I’ve reviewed over the years. You can find a list of my favorite series at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

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