Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2020,
Part II: Jim Napier

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Canada. Since 2005, more than 600 of his reviews and interviews have appeared in newspapers and on various crime-fiction and literary Web sites, including on his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. Napier’s debut crime novel, Legacy, was published in 2017, with a sequel, Ridley’s War, released in November 2020 by FriesenPress.

The Law of Innocence, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):

Los Angeles defense lawyer Mickey Haller is having a good day. He’s just helped his client walk out of a courtroom, after turning a felony battery charge into a winning case of justified self-defense. Not the sort of outcome that endears Haller to cops, judges, and prosecutors, yet it goes with the job when you’re a defense lawyer.

But after leaving a nearby bar, where he’s been celebrating his win, Haller turns his car onto a street and notices blue flashing lights in his rear-view mirror. His day is about to get a whole lot worse.

Within hours Haller finds himself under arrest and lodged in one of L.A.’s jails. Its seems a search of his car has turned up a bullet-riddled body in the trunk. It belongs to a former client of Haller’s, and now the lawyer is the cops’ prime suspect. An unsympathetic judge sets Haller’s bail at $5 million. Even covering the 10 percent bond would wipe out Haller’s nest egg, which he’s set aside to cover his daughter’s college costs, so Haller decides to remain in jail and conduct his defense from there. What do they say about a person who acts as his own lawyer? Right. Haller, though, is undaunted, and promptly sets about preparing his case. It won’t be easy: forensic evidence shows that the victim was killed in Haller’s own garage the night before the attorney’s apprehension, and Haller says he was at home the entire time—alone.

So begins The Law of Innocence, Michael Connelly’s sixth novel in his Lincoln Lawyer series. It focuses on a cat-and-mouse game played between Haller and cutthroat prosecutor Dana Berg, with Haller’s freedom, livelihood, and reputation all hanging in the balance. For it’s not enough that Haller should walk out of the courtroom with a Not Guilty verdict on his record; instead, he must prove himself innocent, or he knows that the public, and his clients, will simply conclude that he somehow beat the system. This is Mickey Haller’s most important case, and one he must win.

To say that The Law of Innocence is deftly written doesn’t begin to do it justice. It is superbly plotted, the writing taut and utterly convincing, and Connelly once again displays his encyclopedic knowledge of both Los Angeles and the labyrinth world of the law, keeping readers firmly in his grip. The latest in what was already an outstanding series, The Law of Innocence cements Michael Connelly’s standing as simply America’s finest crime-fiction author.

Postmark Berlin, by Anne Emery (ECW Press):

Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1996: After a night out on the town, Father Brennan Burke is sleeping off a hangover of mammoth proportions. When he awakens, he learns that Meika Keller, a parishioner and active member of his Catholic diocese, has been found dead, a possible suicide. Father Burke is devastated. He’d missed an appointment they had scheduled for the previous evening, in the hours prior to her death. If only he had avoided the siren’s lure of drink, he would have remembered their appointment—and she might still be alive. He cannot escape the conclusion that, in a very real sense, her blood is on his hands.

Now haunted by Meika’s passing, Burke struggles to make sense of her life. He learns that many years earlier, Meika had changed her name after fleeing East Germany. Why had she taken a new identity? Was there some lingering threat having to do with her former life? Brennan soon discovers that shortly before her demise, Meika had received a postcard from Berlin. Did that somehow play a role in her tragedy? He decides to travel to Germany to see for himself.

Postmark Berlin is an excellent addition to an already very strong series of novels (begun with 2006’s Sign of the Cross) by multiple award-winning author Anne Emery. Its gripping plot is supported by nuanced and believable characters, and informed by the author’s firm knowledge of history. Slowly unfurling the multifaceted tale of a complex woman and her equally convoluted past, the author carries the reader along effortlessly to a satisfying conclusion. Coming on the heels of Though the Heavens Fall (2018), Postmark Berlin firmly cements Emery’s position among the top half-dozen crime writers in Canada.

Find Them Dead, by Peter James (Macmillan UK):

A young woman traveling through South America during her gap year is in mortal danger. Unbeknownst to her, her every action is being monitored by killers, and it is clear that only one thing will save her: her widowed mother, Sarah Hope, sitting on a jury back in England, must hold out for a full acquittal of the defendant being tried. Anything short of that, including bringing in the police, will result in the death of her daughter. Drawing on the resources of the Internet and other high-tech means of surveillance, the criminals make it clear that they are in total control of Sarah’s life: they are monitoring her calls, and know where she goes and who she sees. They can enter her house at any time, leaving clear signs that they have been on the premises. And as the jury moves to determine the accused’s fate, Sarah is reminded that if she fails to convince a majority of her fellow jurors to vote for acquittal, her daughter will die.

Find Them Dead, Peter James’ 16 novel featuring Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, is an absolute corker of a thriller. The author deftly navigates the stark terror faced by Sarah Hope, and her increasingly desperate attempts to protect her daughter, as the trial moves inexorably toward its conclusion and Grace remains—at least initially—oblivious to the whole dire situation. Meticulously plotted and superbly written, Find Them Dead marks another high point in James’ series. It’s as good as anything else this genre can offer. Well done!

A Song for the Dark Times, by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown):

Just squeaking under the wire in the waning days of 2020, Ian Rankin delivers his 23rd John Rebus yarn, which finds the retired Edinburgh police detective struggling against the ravages of age. He and his dog Brillo have moved into a ground-floor flat in the building they already occupied, the better to cope with Rebus’ ever-worsening COPD. Yet they’re hardly settled there when Rebus receives a troubling phone call from his daughter, Samantha, who has been living in northern Scotland with her partner Keith and their own child, Carrie.

Rebus hasn’t heard from Sam in some time, and for all practical purposes they are estranged. But when he learns that Keith has suddenly gone missing and that Sam is a prime suspect in his disappearance, Rebus hurries north to do what he can. It’s a struggle the whole way, trying to solve the case and protect his daughter’s future. And things can only get worse when Rebus himself discovers Keith’s corpse.

Dark as that description of the novel’s storyline is, this wouldn’t be a Rankin story if it wasn’t dexterously layered. While Rebus carries on his investigation, his former partner, Siobhan Clarke, has her hands full dealing with a high-profile murder, while her colleague Malcolm Fox finds himself becoming increasingly involved in the machinations of none other than Rebus’ familiar antagonist, “Big Ger” Cafferty, who wants to use Fox’s connections for his own less-than-legal ends. In this book, Rankin also explores the nooks and crannies of Rebus’ troubled relationship with his daughter, who harbors an abundance of long-standing hostility toward her father. This is yet another battle for the old warrior to fight.

All in all, A Song for the Dark Times is vintage Rankin, an estimable read. And let’s face it, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a fresh Rebus outing to savor, would it? Thanks for the present, Ian.

Mr. Campion’s Séance, by Mike Ripley (Severn House):

London, toward the end of World War II: Best-selling crime writer Evadne Childe has just published a novel in which the rather disreputable owner of one of the city’s speakeasies (“bottle clubs” in London parlance) is robbed and slain. The extraordinary parallels between the plot of that yarn and a recent, real-life homicide at the Grafton Club in Soho raise eyebrows at Scotland Yard. Yet no one is arrested for the crimes.

A full six years later, yet another killing takes place. This one too shares eerie similarities with another Evadne Childe novel. The police are again baffled, but can make no headway in the case.

Now fast-forward several more years, and a daring robbery is committed in the heart of London. A postal van is stopped in broad daylight, breeched, and its contents taken away by thieves in front of startled passers-by. Incredibly, the heist had been previously described in one of Evadne Childe’s novels—a work that is still in the hand of her publishers, and has not yet been released! Again, police look into the matter, but they are unable to establish any link between the author and the crime itself.

Aristocratic amateur sleuth Albert Campion—the creation originally of Margery Allingham—takes up the formidable task of solving these daunting puzzles, assisted by a colorful cast of supporting players. This is an ambitious and far-reaching tale, but Ripley carries it off with his characteristic panache. Undaunted by the complexity of his project, he seamlessly transports the reader between times and places that would challenge a lesser author. Mr. Campion’s Séance is Mike Ripley’s sixth Campion continuation novel, and throughout, his affection for Allingham and her characters is apparent. He never fails to do her work justice. This novel is a distinctive achievement of 2020.

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