Friday 22 September 2017

Review: (i)The Leopard by Jo Nesbo, (ii)The Burning by Jane Casey and (iii)The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke

(i) Harvill Secker, €15.49, (ii) Ebury Press, €8.99 and (iii) Orion, €17.99

CRIMEBUSTERS: Jane Casey offers gripping narrative and complex characters
CRIMEBUSTERS: Jane Casey offers gripping narrative and complex characters

Declan Burke

THE eighth in Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series, The Leopard, opens with Oslo crime squad detective Hole wallowing in the squalor of a Hong Kong opium haze. The impending death of his father and the emergence of a serial killer combine to drag Hole back to Norway, there to become embroiled in a political struggle between Norway's elite police forces.

The rather disjointed first 100 pages of scene-setting have a quasi-gothic feel to them (the serial killer employs a fiendish device called a "Leopold's apple" to kill his victim, and Nesbo evokes the darker aspects of Sherlock Holmes with Hole's opium addiction), but Nesbo is obviously having fun with turning the crime novel's conventions inside-out. Hole is a loner, a misanthrope, an alcoholic and a rebel, all of which are police procedural tropes so well-worn they verge on cliche. Nesbo also displays a worrying penchant for mythologising Hole's integrity and sexual appeal in the early part of the story, but he's a good enough writer to subvert these cliches and make of Hole a compellingly idiosyncratic protagonist, a man who is obsessively self-conscious of his failings and how they impact on his professional life.

The story itself offers a rigorous police investigation liberally laced with red herrings, and combines some beautifully descriptive writing on Norway's wastelands, with a globe-trotting tale that sees Hole travel from Hong Kong to Norway, onwards to Rwanda and the Congo, and back to Norway again. The combination makes for a propulsive momentum, although some of Nesbo's characters lack the quality of realism he brings to the minutiae of the police investigation -- Hole's nemesis, fellow policeman Mikael Bellman, just about stops short of twirling a luxuriant moustache and cackling aloud, while the female characters are a little too conveniently besotted by Hole when the plot requires it for them to fully ring true.

At 624 pages, The Leopard could easily have shed 200 pages and become a much tauter tale. That said, this is a meaty and ambitious novel that fully justifies -- for good and ill -- the cover's claim that Nesbo is the most credible contender to inherit the mantle of "the next Stieg Larsson".

Tana French and Arlene Hunt have blazed a trail for contemporary Irish women crime writers, and Jane Casey deserves to be mentioned in such august company. The Burning, Casey's second novel (the first, The Missing, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards' Crime Fiction award last year) opens with London-based detective constable Maeve Kerrigan at the scene of the latest horror perpetrated by the serial killer and arsonist known to the media as "the Burning Man". The butt of her male-dominated department's jokes on the basis of her sex, her inexperience and her Irish heritage, Kerrigan fights a losing battle with aplomb.

Casey has created in Kerrigan an immensely likeable and empathic character, a woman who resolutely refuses to play either the victim or a ball-busting pseudo-bloke to compensate for the environment in which she works. Instead she plays to her strengths, chief among them a dry and self-deprecating sense of humour, and a sharp eye for the kind of detail her testosterone-fuelled peers tend to miss. The latter plays its part in allowing Casey to make a classic "bait-and-switch" of the serial killer motif which opens the novel, as Kerrigan quickly suspects that the latest death, that of Rebecca Haworth, is a copy-cat killing designed to disguise a more heinous murder. The novel also offers a parallel first- person narrative, as the dead woman's best friend, lawyer Louise North, gradually reveals that she knows more about the killing than anyone is reasonably entitled to suspect.

Casey deftly entwines the narratives as she cranks up the tension and pace, blending a page-turning and realistic police procedural with a tense character study reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith's psychological explorations of her ostensibly charming villains. It's a winning mix that's firmly rooted in, and influenced by, Kerrigan's frustrations with her professional advancement and personal entanglements, all of which contribute handsomely to a hugely enjoyable read.

James Lee Burke is a venerable member of crime fiction's pantheon, and The Glass Rainbow will not disappoint his legions of fans. His 27th novel, and the 18th to feature Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux, the story reads like a homage to the novels of the great Ross Macdonald, as Robicheaux investigates the sordid deaths of a number of young women. The women all appear to be connected to the Abelards, a family with more than its fair share of skeletons dancing in its cupboards, and one whose roots and fortune go all the way back to the dark days when the grand families of the American South built their empires on the flogged backs of slaves.

The Glass Rainbow follows a well-established formula: Robicheaux, despite his age, rages against the dying of the light and bends and breaks the rules whenever the mood takes him. His best friend, ex-cop Clete Purcell, is similarly inclined to cock a snook at authority, even if both men understand only too well that any small victory they win is a Pyrrhic one. Robicheaux is particularly exercised when- ever his family of wife Molly and adopted daughter Alafair are threatened, and he struggles throughout the novel to bear the cross of being a dry alcoholic, occasionally experiencing flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Vietnam.

There's a comfort in all of this for Burke's fans, of course, many of whom have aged along with Robicheaux, and have shared his struggles since he first appeared in 1987's The Neon Rain. What marks Burke as a gifted writer, however, is the quality of his prose, which he deploys to superb effect when describing the evocative setting of rural Louisiana, and particularly when Robicheaux muses on his own mortality. When combined with an authentically gritty tone of realism, Burke's occasional flights of fancy into the surreal and the absurd as he contemplates his dark deeds and flawed legacy are at times mesmerising, and render The Glass Rainbow a memorably haunting read.

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