S.J. Bolton, one of the most original of all contemporary crime writers, has apparently decided to embrace a series identity instead of writing a string of stand alones. Her last novel, Now You See Me, was, for her, her most conventional book. It’s a police procedural set in contemporary London, though she added her own twists to the formula: the story was rooted in Jack the Ripper lore, and she used a gender lens to tell her story, subtly including a female-centric point of view throughout.
Peter Robinson is one of the most intellectual of all mystery writers – and I’m including P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and the late, lamented Reginald Hill in my assessment. One of his recent books, All the Colors of Darkness, was a take on Othello and its theme of jealousy. This novel, while not a part of his now classic Inspector Banks series, is still a thoughtful and compelling novel, based not on Shakespeare, but on the classic film Laura.
While Robinson has forsaken some of that film’s pop sensibility and sense of fun, he has retained its longing for the unattainable. In the film, it’s a portrait of Laura that sets off the longing; in this novel, it’s both the central character’s dead wife, Laura, and the ghost of an executed woman who seems to inhabit the house this man has just bought in the depths of Yorkshire.
When authors mention another author as someone they enjoyed discovering, I take notice. Libby Hellmann asked me on a recent visit who I had enjoyed reading recently and I mentioned S.J. Bolton, and she countered with Elly Griffiths (Libby is also a fan of Bolton’s). Recently Griffiths won the Mary Higgins Clark award and this spurred my curiosity even more, and I could put off reading The Crossing Places no longer. I read it through in a day, with the kind of growing enjoyment that made me wonder “Are there more?” (Yes, one more, and another due in January.) One reason the book is so wonderful – though only one of them – is the heroine, archeologist Ruth Galloway.
S.J. Bolton is a strikingly original writer, and this book, while being something of a change up from her previous three, is no different in its originality. The change up involves moving the story to the big city of London – the other books were in remote areas of Britain – and making it pretty much a straight up police procedural. She carries over a character, Dana Tulloch, from Blood Harvest, but this novel is in no way a sequel. What does remain the same is a very interesting, flawed, central female character, in this case one Lacey Flint, a member of the police force who has the bad luck to have a woman die in her arms in the opening scene. Lacey, it develops, has many secrets, and they are only slowly teased out throughout the book.
Sometimes a great first novel is no guarantee of a terrific second novel. I’m happy to report that Elly Griffith’s sophomore outing, The Janus Stone, is more than a match for her wonderful debut, The Crossing Places. Her central character, archeologist Ruth Galloway, is still living on the edge of a salt marsh in Norfolk, a setting rich in archeological history dating back to the Iron Age. In this novel, the remains are slightly more recent: they are Roman, and some of the uncovered bones are more recent still.
G.M. Malliet is obviously a devotee of the golden age of mystery – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – and she takes the old formula made dear to readers and applies it to the 21st century. This novel especially resembles Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death, where a particularly unpleasant village specimen is murdered at the piano warming up for an amateur theatrical. The vicar in Marsh’s novel is described as looking like a “Roman Coin,” while in Malliet’s, the vicar instead resembles the contemporary and dishy Hugh Grant.
Deborah Crombie’s skills as a sophisticated novelist have only increased over time. What began as a standard, though excellent, police series based in London, has evolved into a series that’s richly populated with detailed, complex characters, vivid settings, and themes. She’s neck and neck with authors like P.D. James and Elizabeth George, though she doesn’t share their sometimes completely bleak viewpoint.
Deborah Crombie also often highlights something interesting about England in each book – in this novel, she’s chosen sculling, and the Oxford University rowing culture. Her victim is a cop who had Olympic aspirations – Becca Meredith – and who has been contemplating a last shot at the Games. She’s last seen out with her boat, and her ex-husband gets worried about her.