Heroes make an explosive return
Robert Crais (pronounced like “chase”, I’ve only recently discovered) is one of America’s bestselling thriller writers, with each novel one of the most anticipated of the year for his millions of fans in more than 60 countries. And his latest, The Promise (Orion, 402pp, $29.99), is a fine addition to the genre his publishers call “the intelligent action thriller”. Apart from the gunplay, no other writer so effectively and amusingly integrates the Californian detective novel with the police procedural and the moral thriller.
And like his back catalogue in this fine chronicle of Los Angeles chivalry starring private eyes Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, The Promise features that distinctive mix of sentimentality, humour, misdirection, abrupt furious violence and gravity of purpose his fans enjoy so much.
Again Cole, former army man turned private investigator, is the unorthodox front guy. Pike, also former military, lurks menacingly in the background, as he’s done since the Cole novels debuted in 1987 with The Monkey’s Raincoat.
Cole is still making bad cracks: “Elvis Cole Agency,” he says, answering his phone. “We do it in the rain.” And as always when it comes to humour, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Detective” is his own greatest audience. He’s hired by Meryl Lawrence to find a woman called Amy Breslin, given only an address in Echo Park, two grand in cash and a corporate personnel file with so much information about her missing friend it might have been compiled by the National Security Agency. She does not want to be seen with Cole, so they meet in carparks and she pays in cash; everything is top secret.
Breslin, a woman Cole pictures as “a sad version of someone’s marshmallow aunt, who wore sensible shoes and minded her own business”, has apparently disappeared while grieving for her journalist son Jacob, who was killed by a terrorist blast in Nigeria. It turns out she has absconded with $460,000 from her company and was being blackmailed to supply explosives.
As helicopters swirl overhead, there’s a killer on the run and the investigation soon takes Cole to a house in Echo Park crammed with explosives. The situation also attracts LAPD K-9 officer Scott James and his fearless German shepherd Maggie (the protagonists of Crais’s 2013 novel Suspect), both combat veterans of Afghanistan. Crais handles the bringing together of such attractive protagonists with wit and deftness and with no sense of contrivance or coincidence — no easy matter when it comes to parallel plotting.
Crais (a former TV writer who worked on hit TV shows of the late 1970s and early 80s, including the award-winning series Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey and Miami Vice) intercuts from the various characters’ points of view with cinematic acuity. Maybe only a writer who has endured the rigours of the TV industry writer’s room can pull off such plausible dialogue, relentless pacing and believable characters and toss in a few laughs along the way.
David Young’s Stasi Child ( Allen & Unwin, 416pp, $29.99) is a promising debut, an astutely considered novel of detection and place, redolent of dread, paranoia and suspicion. It’s set in the East Berlin of 1975, where the favourite method of execution is the guillotine. And Young delivers a police procedural that in its way is also a Cold War political thriller. If you are a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, this will appeal. Though it’s stylistically more sober than Kerr’s noirish novels, the Berlin background is just as authentically realised.
At its centre is baby-faced Oberleutnant Karin Muller of the People’s Police, the only female head of a murder squad in the republic, and not yet in her 30th year. Loyal and still patriotic, she’s working diligently to subordinate her personal interests for the good of the collective, subscribing to the utopian vision of socialism in the dystopian German Democratic Republic. An unusual creation for a fictional cop and certain to feature in more novels in what might be an engrossing series, the unhappily married Muller is somewhat ingenuous and introspective.
As a dedicated police officer in 70s East Germany, just doing her job is difficult enough, but she has just woken up in a bed that doesn’t belong to her with one of her subordinates, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, and she can’t remember a thing.
To make things worse, her latest case involves an unknown murder victim who has attracted the interest of the Stasi, the hated and feared ministry for state security. And people in high places want the case closed down.
The body, found at the St Elizabeth cemetery in Ackerstrasse next to the infamous Berlin Wall and the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier to the northeast, is that of a young girl. The wounds in her back suggest automatic gunfire — the official account is that she was trying to escape from the West, but the girl’s body is facing the wrong way.
What follows is a neatly contrived parallel narrative, one story in the third person told from Muller’s point of view and the other following the life of a 15-year-old female inmate of a communist Jugendwerkhof, a closed juvenile correctional facility or reform school. (The au- thor mentions that although the Jugendwerkhof featured in the novel is fictional, the facility at Torgau, notorious for sexual and physical abuse of children, provided some background.)
As the novel accelerates towards a violent collision of multiple stories on the snowy slopes of northern Germany’s highest mountain, the Brocken, Young demonstrates he has not only a fine heroine but a nice eye for action, claustrophobic detail and a lurking, just-under-control sense of the gothic.
John Connolly, the master Irish storyteller who so poetically frames the uncanny and disturbing within reasonable, believable events that take place in the context of the hard-boiled thriller, returns with A Time of Torment (Hodder & Stoughton, 472pp, $29.99).
It’s another in his fine series featuring Charlie “Bird” Parker. He’s the sad-eyed investigator, descended from the private eyes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, whose otherness sets him apart.
In Connolly’s last outing, A Song of Shadows, Parker was recuperating in the small Maine town of Boreas, a dying place named after the Greek god of winter. He was recovering from wounds he received in the previous novel, A Wolf in Winter, when attacked by two gunmen with pistols and a shotgun. The time of healing, and his abrupt involvement in a circle of dark David Young’s Stasi Child is set in 1970s East Germany, where the favourite method of execution is the guillotine secrets somehow connected to what happened in a Nazi death camp seven decades before, saw him again taking up the role of sacrificial lamb. And he hunted a group of people who believed they were beyond the reach of not only any written law but human justice.
Now, in the 14th episode in the Parker saga, having died and been brought back a few times after the shooting, he’s become an avenging angel. He’s now on a federal retainer, hired to track down a list of names retrieved from the wreckage of an aeroplane in Maine’s Great North Woods. As he uncovers their identities, Parker feeds most of them to the Feds without involving himself in their apprehension. He hunts down the identity of the principal at the centre of this group who call themselves the Backers, all of them engaged in pursuit of the buried deity they call the God of Wasps.
As he works on his investigation, a man called Jerome Burnel, once a hero who intervened to prevent multiple killings and in doing so damned himself and was imprisoned and brutalised, tells Parker his story on release. And Parker goes in search of those who tormented him, though by the time he takes on the case, Burnel has been captured and transported to a nightmarish place called “the Cut”, a self-contained, militaristic woods community.
In a note, Connolly calls the novel “an odd book”, but it might be one of his best. The author is simply a master storyteller who, like no other writer, can blend so poetically the psychological and supernatural with the quotidian. And, believe it or not, add a layer of wonderful gallows humour. His prose is as elegant as most literary fiction, though embedded determinedly in the genre of popular crime writing.