Heroes make an ex­plo­sive re­turn

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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