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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.

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.


Inspector Rebus goes to London to catch a serial murderer

serial murdererTooth and Nail (Inspector Rebus #3), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A serial murderer dubbed The Wolfman by the press has killed and mutilated three women in London, one a month. The pressure is on the police to catch the killer before panic spreads further. Now, someone at New Scotland Yard has written to Edinburgh to request help from Inspector John Rebus, much to his surprise. Whoever it is has mistaken Rebus for an expert on serial murder, because the difficult case he had solved was very personal and held few lessons for other investigators. But orders are orders. And no sooner does he arrive in London than he learns from the radio that The Wolfman has killed a fourth woman.

Thus opens Tooth and Nail, the third novel in Ian Rankin’s venerable series of detective novels featuring Inspector Rebus. The trouble starts virtually as soon as Rebus makes contact with Inspector George Flight, who has been assigned as his partner: Flight can’t understand a word he says because of Rebus’ strong Scottish accent. Practically everyone else in the homicide department resents his having been called in—and they’re not the least bit shy about showing it. They can’t understand him, either.

No reader of the series will be surprised to learn that matters soon go further downhill. The disagreeable Scot manages to alienate all his new colleagues at Scotland Yard by ignoring established procedure and disappearing without explanation to investigate on his own. Since this is fiction, we’re confident that Inspector Rebus will eventually identify and catch the killer, and in short order. However, there’s a great deal of confusion and conflict before that happens, and Rebus is saved from arrest himself only because he manages to resolve the case.

In a sense, Tooth and Nail is a traditional whodunit, since many suspects surface in the course of the investigation and Rebus’ job, above all, is to sort through them to find the one who is guilty. But Rankin is a much more skillful writer than most. He manages to create a credible portrait of his difficult hero and to convey a sense that he fully understands police procedure. This is one detective novel that’s genuinely suspenseful to the end. The conclusion took me by surprise—and that doesn’t happen all that often. This is a very satisfying read.


Police corruption in suburbia

Police corruptionWhere It Hurts (Gus Murphy #1), by Reed Farrel Coleman

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

After decades of reading mysteries and thrillers, I still frequently encounter authors whose names are new to me—but are described as “bestselling” and sometimes have dozens of novels to their credit. Reed Farrel Coleman is the latest example. Author of at least 23 books divided among six series of crime novels, Coleman is the recipient of half a dozen literary awards. His latest series features John Augustus “Gus” Murphy, a retired cop in suburban Suffolk County on Long Island. Where It Hurts is the first in the series.

For most outsiders, Long Island is identified with the Hamptons and other wealthy New York suburbs. But, as Coleman writes, “most of the island isn’t about Gatsby. A current of poverty and violence roils beneath the surface here, too. A lot of senseless blood gets spilled. What off-islanders see is the 24-carat gilding along the edges where the money flows, not the fool’s gold in the middle where the rats race as hard as in the city and where the stray dogs lie in wait.” This is the territory Gus Murphy worked in uniform for 20 years in the Suffolk County Police Department. It’s also where his life has been unraveling for the two years since his teenage son died, his wife left him, and he resigned from the department. Now Gus works nights at a third-rate hotel driving a courtesy van to and from the local airport and serving as house detective.

When a pathetic ex-con approaches him about looking into the murder of his own son, Gus resists. Eventually, though, he is drawn into opening the case, which police have failed to investigate. As Gus begins to ask questions, he quickly comes up against a wall of resistance from his old department. First, he’s warned away. Then the violence starts, and more bodies begin to fall. Few of even his best friends on the force are willing to lift a hand to help him. Evidence of police corruption soon becomes obvious—and it may go all the way to the top, to the very popular Chief of Police, Jimmy Regan. Repeatedly risking his life, Gus persists in his investigation and gradually begins to recover interest in living. Along the way, he gets help from an old priest who has lost his faith and a woman who is ready to love him despite his wounds and flaws.

Where It Hurts is the first of what are now two novels in Coleman’s new Gus Murphy series.


Karin Slaughter’s tale of neo-Nazis and meth in rural Georgia

Karin SlaughterBeyond Reach (Grant County #6), by Karin Slaughter

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Detective Lena Adams of the Grant County Police is in trouble again. On a visit to her home town, she witnesses the gruesome murder of a friend on the back seat of a car she has been forced to drive. While sitting in shock near the scene of the murder, she is arrested for the crime. The man who was responsible is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, back in Grant County, Dr. Sara Linton is facing her own brand of trouble. She is facing a malpractice suit by the grief-ridden parents of a young boy whose leukemia had killed him despite all Sara’s efforts. She is pulled out of her guilt and self-doubt only when her husband, Grant County Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver, takes her with him on the long drive to Lena’s home town. They are rushing south through hundreds of miles of rural Georgia to rescue the trouble-prone detective.

Thus opens Karin Slaughter’s Beyond Reach. As the story advances, Lena, Sara, and Jeffrey become involved in a high-tension case involving neo-Nazis, the methamphetamine trade, and police corruption. Once again, Slaughter delivers a convincing tale grounded in the sad reality of many rural counties across America. Her command of plotting and character development is accomplished. And few writers can equal her ability to build suspense to a fever pitch—and then continue to surprise at the very end.

Karin Slaughter’s writing in context

How many murders and other atrocities can you cram into one small town and continue to persuade readers to suspend disbelief? Surely, there’s a limit. Louise Penny long ago passed that limit with the murder mysteries she placed in the Quebec village of Three Pines. There are 13 books to date in the Inspector Armand Gamache series of detective novels, which I found hard to swallow after reading three. I found the same problem with Donna Leon‘s detective novels set in the small town of Venice. There are 26 in her Commissario Guido Brunetti series. I gave up after four or five.

This isn’t just a problem for readers. It’s difficult for the writers as well. If you read the latest entries in either of these series and compare them to the earliest novels, you may find that the author’s boredom shows clearly. But that’s not the case with every thriller author. Karin Slaughter is one of the exceptions.

Karin Slaughter has written 23 crime thrillers. In addition to 10 Will Trent novels and six standalone books, there are six that constitute the Grant County series. Dr. Sara Linton and Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver operate in one small Georgia county. (Georgia’s 10 million people are spread among 159 counties, of which Grant must be one of the smallest. That doesn’t leave a lot of latitude for shocking crimes to be committed there.) Beyond Reach is the sixth. At that point, the series clearly had run its course: Slaughter ran out of characters to rape, torture, murder, or expose their secrets. (She has written no additional novels in the series in the past 10 years, so I’m assuming there will be no more.) It’s refreshing to read an author who doesn’t overdo a good thing.


Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline WinspearThe Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs #7), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s 1932, Maisie Dobbs’ third year in business as an “inquiry agent.” (That’s British for private detective.) As usual, Maisie’s life is complicated. Her assistant, Billy Beale, is working shorter hours to care for his wife, who has just been released from a mental asylum. Maisie’s beloved mentor and former employer, Dr. Maurice Blanche, is in declining health. And two attractive, wealthy men are pursuing her despite her reluctance to take time away from her work. Her agency is doing well even in the Depression. Then a friend she’d known from her service as a nurse in the Great War writes from America to ask that she help an American couple freshly arrived in London.

The Cliftons, it turns out, are in their late seventies. Edward Clifton had emigrated from England to the U.S. as a young man. There he built a huge property development business, in which their children are now assuming leadership. He and his wife just arrived from France, where the remains of their youngest son were uncovered in an old battlefield. Letters uncovered with his body reveal that the young man had had an affair with a young woman during the war. Maisie’s assignment is to locate her. But Maisie discovers almost immediately that the job isn’t just an old missing-persons case: a close reading of the autopsy report makes clear that Michael Clifton didn’t die in battle. He was murdered.

While spending time with the dying Maurice and navigating the attentions of two competing would-be husbands, Maisie sets out to determine who murdered Michael Clifton and identify his long-missing lover. Her investigation immerses her in the dynamics of the large and complicated Clifton family. Then, when the aged Cliftons are attacked in their hotel and left to die, Scotland Yard enters the scene. Maisie is then forced to collaborate with the detective who has caused a great deal of trouble for her in the past.

The Mapping of Love and Death is the seventh novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s delightful Maisie Dobbs series. (The reference to mapping in the title refers to Michael Clifton’s chosen profession as a cartographer and his work in a British Army cartography unit on the front lines in France.) As in its predecessors, World War I looms large in the background. Winspear deftly portrays the difficulty the English had to leave behind the terrible consequences of the war even a decade and a half later. However, the shocking conclusion to this novel reveals that future books in the series may take a turn toward the coming, Second World War. Given the skill she demonstrated in the first seven novels in the series, I’m looking forward to more from Jacqueline Winspear.



The first in a series of great detective novels

detective novelsKnots and Crosses (Inspector Rebus #1), by Ian Rankin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

John Rebus makes his debut as a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh police in Knots and Crosses. He’s been on the force for fifteen years following a decorated career in the British Army and, for a time, in the original special forces unit, the Special Air Service. He’s a disagreeable sort, disliked by most of his colleagues. His superiors tolerate him because he’s proven to be such a good detective.

It’s that reputation as a skilled investigator that leads to his being assigned to the task force pulled together to investigate a pair of horrific strangulation murders of Edinburgh girls aged 11-12—the age of Rebus’ daughter Samantha. Like several others, he and his partner are assigned to menial tasks. For days, the team makes no progress at all until finally Rebus turns up a useful clue in long-overlooked eyewitness reports. His recognition for this breakthrough brings him to the attention of Inspector Gill Templer, the force’s liaison with the press. Their relationship develops quickly as the investigation lurches forward—and more girls are murdered.

Rebus’ father was a stage hypnotist, as is his younger brother Michael. Michael soon emerges as a major character in the tale, as does the investigative reporter who is convinced he is involved in drug trafficking. In fact, the reporter believes that John Rebus is also involved, and his obsessive pursuit of that belief complicates the detective’s life.

Knots and Crosses is a cut above the usual serial killer thriller. The suspense is palpable, and Rankin succeeds in making us care a great deal about his protagonist. It’s no surprise that he resurrected Rebus in a long series of sequels and is successfully continuing to do so to this day.
About the author

Knots and Crosses, was the first of Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus novels, published in 1988. Rankin was dismayed when the critics treated it as detective fiction. He had set out to write a mainstream novel. Presumably, he’s no longer disappointed, having won dozens of literary awards and sold millions of copies of his books. He, his wife, and their two sons live in Edinburgh near fellow writers J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, and Kate Atkinson.

The original hard-boiled detective?

hard-boiled detectiveRed Harvest (Continental Op #1), by Dashiell Hammett

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Maybe he wasn’t the original hard-boiled detective. But he was certainly among the first. His creator, Dashiell Hammett, called him “the Continental op.” And the New York Times termed Hammett “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction” in its obituary in 1961.

The debut of the hard-boiled detective

The tough guy made his first appearance in Red Harvest, the first of Hammett’s five novels. Hammett is better known as the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, both of which are familiar to fans of classic films. But it was Red Harvest that Time magazine singled out, including the novel on its list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Red Harvest was first published in book form in 1929, following its serialization in four parts in the mystery magazine Black Mask in 1928-29.

Hammett’s dated writing style

On reading nearly a century after its publication, the book comes across as distinctly dated. Hammett’s vernacular prose is grounded in the slang of the 1920s. The result is a style that seems as stilted as the over-precise diction of Victorian times. Here’s one character describing another minor figure in the story: “‘His real moniker is Al Kennedy. He was in on the Keystone Trust knock-over in Philly two years ago, when Scissors Haggerty’s mob croaked two messengers. Al didn’t do the killing, but he was in on the caper. He used to scrap around Philly. The rest of them got copped, but he made the sneak. That’s why he’s sticking out here in the bushes. That’s why he won’t never let them put his mug in the papers or on any cards. That’s why he’s a pork-and-beaner when he’s as good as the best. See? This Ike Bush is Al Kennedy that the Philly bulls want for the Keystone trick.'”

“Hard skin all over what’s left of my soul”

The nameless Continental op is an operative of the Continental Detective Agency, San Francisco branch, much as Hammett himself was a private investigator for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before he turned to full-time writing. He describes himself as “a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy . . . I’ve got hard skin all over what’s left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of a murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day’s work.”

A lot of blood on his hands

This is the cynical, hard-bitten investigator who turns up in the drab Western mining town of Personville. He’s been hired by the publisher and editor of the town’s newspapers. When he turns up that evening to meet the man, he learns that his client has just been murdered. The publisher’s murder turns out to be just the first of dozens of murders; Hammett stopped counting at 17. But it’s no coincidence that this murder epidemic erupts soon after the detective’s arrival in town. In fact, he proves to be the cause of most of them. A lot of blood is spilled in Red Harvest, and the investigator’s hands aren’t clean.

In the serialized format where the novel first appeared, it’s understandable that Hammett would find it necessary to keep the suspense and the violence coming throughout the book. However, for a 21st-century reader, the continuous drumbeat of murder can feel tedious. Red Harvest is pulp fiction, through and through. Thriller writers have come a long way since 1928.





The master of Louisiana noir

Louisiana noirCadillac Jukebox (Dave Robicheaux #9), by James Lee Burke

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Veteran detective Dave Robicheaux of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department is reluctantly drawn into a case involving the decades-old assassination of Louisiana’s leading NAACP leader. Aaron Crown is serving time for the murder but protests his innocence, and a Hollywood film crew seems bent on exposing the injustice of the case. Crown wants Dave to investigate. Simply visiting the man in prison opens up a hornet’s nest of mobsters, crooked politicians, and other assorted lowlife. This is Louisiana noir by James Lee Burke, the masterful stylist of the craft, who can equal anything written by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Elmore Leonard.

In Cadillac Jukebox, the ninth in the Dave Robicheaux series, Burke’s familiar characters all reappear. Dave’s second wife, Bootsie, and their adopted Salvadoran daughter, Alafair, now 14, and the three-legged raccoon she keeps as a pet. Batist, Dave’s African-American partner in the bait and boat-rental business they operate on Dave’s bayou-facing home property. His violence-prone former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, Clete Purcel, now operating on the fringes of society as a bond enforcer and private investigator. As always, the notorious Giacano crime family lurks in the background. But the novel features a host of unique new characters as well, from former KKK member Aaron Crown to the probable new Governor and his wife to a large collection of lowlife characters with names like Mookie Zerrang, Short Boy Jerry, Mingo Bloomberg, No Duh Dolowitz, and Wee Willie Bimstine.

Burke’s facility with the English language never falters, whether describing the lush landscape of his home state or musing about Dave’s lot in life. “As a police officer,” he writes, “you accept the fact that, in all probability, you will become the instrument that delivers irreparable harm to a variety of individuals. Granted, they design their own destinies, are intractable in their attitudes, and live with the asp at their breasts; but the fact remains that it is you who will appear at some point in their lives, like the headsman with his broad ax on the medieval scaffold, and serve up a fate to them that has the same degree of mercy as that dealt out by your historical predecessor.”

And here is Burke describing the family of an incidental character in the tale. “His twin sister achieved a brief national notoriety when she was arrested for murdering seven men who picked her up hitchhiking on the Florida Turnpike. The mother, an obese, choleric woman with heavy facial hair, was interviewed by CBS on the porch of the shack where the Hatcher children were raised. I’ll never forget her words: ‘It ain’t my fault. She was born that way. I whipped her every day when she was little. It didn’t do no good.”

No wonder Stephen King gushes about Burke’s prose style! The Dave Robicheaux novels transcend the bounds of the detective novel. If anything can properly be called literature, this is it.



Charm in abundance at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

No. 1 Ladies Detective AgencyPrecious and Grace (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #17), by Alexander McCall Smith

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Precious Ramotswe is a “traditionally built” woman who founded and runs the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. She is known throughout Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, for her wisdom and her street smarts. She is also reflective, unfailingly kind, truthful, and patient to an almost superhuman degree. She would have to be to put up with her rude and self-centered assistant, Grace Makutsi.

A charming series of novels

The relationship between the two women is the principal theme of Precious and Grace, the latest addition to Alexander McCall Smith‘s charming series of novels about the agency. Mma (Ms.) Makutsi has always pushed her boss to the limits of her patience. But never before has Mma Ramotswe come so perilously close to lying as in this 17th novel in the series. Shockingly, she is even forced to withhold information that will anger Mma Makutsi! “We are the people we want ourselves to be, and then there are the people we actually are: sometimes it is easier to be the people we want ourselves to be if we keep at least some things to ourselves. That, thought Mma Ramotswe, is only human.”

As in the preceding novels in the series, several subplots unfold in Precious and Grace. Fanwell, the newly promoted junior mechanic in the garage that shares space with the agency, has picked up a stray dog that refuses to return to its home. The agency’s part-time volunteer assistant, Mr. Polopetsi, has been naively promoting a pyramid scheme. And a Canadian woman has come to Gaborone seeking the agency’s help in finding the nanny who raised her when she was child in Botswana. Complications erupt each of these problems as Mma Ramotswe looks for solutions. She solves all the problems, of course. But never in a straight line from beginning to end. The twists and turns are part of the charm of this entertaining little book.

Celebrating Africa through the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Through the character of Mma Ramotswe, McCall Smith celebrates an idealized image of Africa. However, he could hardly have picked a likelier setting than Botswana. Botswana is one of the most remarkable countries in Africa if not in the world as a whole. The country has been democratically ruled since it gained independence from Britain in 1964. One of Mma Ramotswe’s heroes, Sir Seretse Khama, set the pattern of peace and stability as Botswana’s first president. Since the 1960s, the country has lifted itself from dire poverty into mid-range income. This, despite the fact of mineral wealth that in other countries has simply enriched a small elite. For many years the nation has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. However, Botswana also has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence on the planet, with more than 15% of the country’s two million people infected.

About the author

McCall Smith—yes, that is his last name—is clearly in love with Botswana, where he lived for years and taught law at the national university he co-founded in Gaborone. An expert in medical law and ethics, he lives in Edinburgh, where he taught at the university for many years. McCall Smith is an extraordinarily prolific author. In addition to the 17 novels in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, he has written scores of novels in other series as well as 13 books on medical law and related topics.