Villains of the piece

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Oz Blackstone may be foul-mouthed and ruthless, but he loves his wife (equally foul-mouthed) and dentist father.

As usual in this series about Mississippi delta cop Dave Robichaux, melancholy pervades Last Car to Elysian Fields by James Lee Burke (Orion, 12.99). Dave, demoted in rank and mourning his recently dead wife Bootsie, is seeking to track down the hired killer who has tried to murder fighting Father Jimmie Dolan. The deaths of three teenage girls in a car accident, together with the long-ago disappearance of a virtuoso black blues singer, come together in a pursuit that clarifies the present and sorts out the past. Plotting is intricate, the solutions (there are several) are skilfully intertwined, but this book demands to be read not simply for the gripping story ingredients but for the muscular poetry of its style and its overpowering sense of place.

John Francome’s latest crime novel, Stalking Horse (Headline, 16.99),set in the horse-racing world, follows in the footsteps of Dick Francis and is none the worse for that. Josh Swallow, in his last season on the turf, yearns to be Champion Jockey. His hope is challenged not only by a young rival, but by a trainer whose wife he once dallied with, that predatory wife herself, now using him to disguise yet another extra-marital affair, and - worst of all - a female stalker plotting to part Josh from his own wife. The story, as it should, races along, with plot twist succeeding surprise revelation, and a final surprise on the penultimate page. The descriptions of the races, from the jockey’s saddle, are realistic enough to excite a confirmed non-racegoer such as myself.

Sarah Paretsky’s Blacklist (Hamish Hamilton, 12.99) brings the private eye VJ Warshawski back to pursuing her inquiries in a vividly evoked Chicago. In the city’s most upmarket area she stumbles across the corpse of an investigative journalist and finds herself enmeshed in a complex of conspiracies featuring a teenage girl who lies persistently, an old lady determined to find out the truth, a mother right out of the Addams family, various predatory lawyers and politicians of both left and right, a young Arab on the run, and a hidden past that conceals sexual secrets as well as a motive that goes back to the McCarthy anti-Communist witch-hunt era. While Paretsky spins it out at more than 400 pages, she provides an engrossing narrative.

In the Girl with the Long Back (Constable, 16.99), Bill James brings back the most unscrupulous cops in all detective fiction, the conniving Assistant Chief Constable Iles and his insubordinate subordinate, Detective Chief Superintendent Harpur. Also on hand are Harpur’s favourite snitch and the crooked nightclub owner Ralph Ember who, despite his resemblance to the youthful Charlton Heston and liability to destabilising panic attacks, shows himself capable of utter ruthlessness. In this world of bluff and counter-bluff, everyone knows what everyone else is trying to prevent them finding out until a truly crafty final.

James Patterson’s The Big Bad Wolf (Headline, 17.99) brings Alex Cross, newly recruited to the FBI, into a succession of serial kidnappings ending in murder which are snatches-to-order, commissioned by men who want complete control of live sexual objects before disposing of them and committed, for large sums of money by - who? The actual kidnappers are simply guns for hire, themselves disposable when they have outlived their usefulness. Patterson, early on, reveals a Mr Big who may be the top boss, but may very well not. Cross, hot on the trail, is for a while sidelined by internal FBI politics and distracted by a fraught family issue unresolved at the book’s end.

A Cry from the Dark (Allison and Busby, 17.99) shows Robert Barnard on top form. Barnard has as his heroine an octogenarian British literary lioness, Bettina Whitelaw, who, long acclaimed as a novelist, is now working on her memoirs. These take her back to her girlhood in a small Australian town, where murky doings took place which have scarred her ever since and which she is now about to revive - unmasking whom? A long-lost daughter arrives from Australia to visit her in London, and others connected with those far-off days are also on hand. Violence occurs when her former housekeeper, house-sitting for Bettina when she is out of town, is brutally attacked, possibly mistaken for Bettina, who works out the identity of the assailant and in doing so solves a mystery from her Australian past. The book ends with a menacing final paragraph.

Elizabeth George has, with A Place of Hiding (Hodder, 18.99), found a new setting in the island of Guernsey, as background to the murder of Guy Brouard, a local millionaire. A young American woman, arriving as travelling companion to her brother, who is being paid extravagantly for delivering some architectural plans to Brouard, is accused of killing him - and, when released, is succeeded as suspect by that same brother. An old friend, the London photographer Deborah St James, is called on for help. Deborah, a regular in the George novels, brings in her equally familiar husband Simon, a forensic expert. Brouard’s relationship with his sister, a local teenage girl and a wayward youth are called into question. Events during the Nazi occupation become relevant. While this book is, as usual with George, far too long (566 pages), when she gets going as a story-teller, she weaves a truly nifty plot.

In 1970, so Minette Walters recounts in Disordered Minds (Macmillan, 16.99), two apparently unrelated events took place in a small town near Bournemouth. A 13-year-old girl, Cill, having been raped by three teenage boys, ran away from home and was never heard of again. A grandmother, Grace, was murdered by her retarded grandson, Martin, who committed suicide in prison. In 2003 a forensic anthropologist, Dr Jonathan Hughes, writes a book questioning the validity of Martin’s conviction and then, having travelled to Bournemouth to investigate further, finds Cill’s fate was linked to the mystery of Grace’s death. Walters has written an intriguing book about Hughes’ sleuthing, in which he is assisted by a doughty woman local councillor. view. This story, simultaneously labyrinthine and crystal clear, is seductively absorbing to the very last page.

The Rottweiler (Hutchinson, 16.99) is a first for Ruth Rendell - a black comedy. A serial killer of young women is on the loose. Items stolen from their corpses turn up in Inez Ferry’s London antique shop, in flats above which live a fraudulent couple, a mentally retarded young man battening on his unmarried aunt, and a prosperous chap who loves only his mother. Inez’s ravishingly beautiful Asian assistant is a con-woman. A gang of druggie criminals burgle the shop and the flats. Nothing new here in Rendell’s CV - except that everything is played for laughs, even to the extent of the murderer (whose identity is disclosed early on) matching the police’s search for him with his own search for his motive for killing. Beautifully written, as always, and with a happy ending (sort of) for very few of the characters.

With A Christmas Journey (Headline, 12.99) Anne Perry also tries something new, a very short novel flashing back in time to early Victorian days and the young womanhood of Lady Vespasia, who as an elderly matriarch features in Perry’s Thomas Pitt series. At a country-house party, a young widow commits suicide after being insulted by a cutting remark from a love rival, Isobel. To expiate her offence, Isobel is sent to deliver the victim’s final letter to the suicide’s mother, holed up in a remote Scottish location. Vespasia accompanies her on a gruesome journey through the Highlands. En route, a deadly secret is inadvertently revealed.