It’s a Mystery: “Folly is like regret, it knows no limits”
By John Hart
Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2016
By Adrian McKinty
Seventh Street Books, 2016
John Hart’s Redemption Road marks his auspicious return after five years (Iron House, 2011). His debut novel The King of Lies (2006) heralded the arrival of a major new talent with comparisons to the best and the brightest in the field. His novels Down River (2008) and The Lost Child (2009) both received the Edgar Award for Best Novel, earning him the distinction as the only author in history to receive this coveted prize for consecutive literary thrillers.
It has been a long time since I started a novel that from word one held me captive while it built slowly, inexorably, breathlessly to its heart-stopping finale. Redemption Road has a panoply of characters but it is Elizabeth Black who is its core. Black, a dedicated police detective of thirteen years, is damaged, dark, and dauntless. She’s a preacher’s daughter who is estranged from her father for tortuous reasons that have nothing to do with religion. At the outset of the novel, she is on suspension for gunning down two men who were sexually abusing 18-year-old Channing Shore in the cellar of an abandoned house. Ignoring department procedure, she went in solo. Given that Elizabeth, a white cop, shot the men, who were black, 18 times, it’s no surprise that she’s front page news. “Hero cop or Angel of Death?” asks a headline. Facing what promises to be a brutal formal investigation, she refuses to see a lawyer and seems strangely indifferent to the outcome.
Elizabeth’s partner of four years, Charlie Beckett knows in his gut that her version of how the shooting went down doesn’t add up:
She was lying. Channing Shore was lying, too…. Liz was a solid cop. Steady. Smart. Dependable. Until the basement…. That thought stuck in his mind as he tried to figure out what Liz was thinking when she’d told the state cops who were out to hang her that the men she’d killed weren’t men, after all, but animals. It went beyond dangerous. It was self-destructive, insane; and the absence of an easy explanation troubled him.
Beckett’s pursuit of the case is impeded not only by Elizabeth’s intransigence but by Adrian Wall. He’s an ex-cop, ranked one of the best, who has been in prison for the murder of Julia Strange for thirteen years, as long as Elizabeth has been on the force. His release coincides with the aftermath of the cellar debacle. Elizabeth and Wall connected long before his conviction and their backstory, not to be revealed here, is laden with emotional baggage. Suffice it to say, she is obsessed with Wall, and has always believed him to be innocent. Heedless of official warnings to steer clear of Wall, she seeks him out:
Beckett didn’t know how to help his partner. Elizabeth was not just wounded but withdrawn, hurting in a way he’d never before seen….Fact was, she felt more than most, but knew how to hide it. It was a survival skill, an asset; but whatever happened in that goddamn basement stripped it right out of her…. Beckett was running out of ideas to protect her. Keep her out of prison. Keep her away from Adrian.
Almost as soon as the prison gates close behind him, Adrian Wall is confronted by Gideon Strange, the 14-year-old son of his alleged victim Julia. Gideon is hell bent on shooting Wall the morning he walks free. Since his mother’s death, he’s a boy whose “thoughts ran crooked sometimes.” His fiercest protector is Elizabeth, who had an unwitting connection to what befell Julia. She was found on the altar of an abandoned church that once belonged to Elizabeth’s father. Elizabeth took Gideon under her wing almost immediately:
For whatever reason, Elizabeth bonded to him, too. She’d held him at the funeral as his father wept…. She cared for him, loved him even. Beckett never understood the reasons.
The boy comes at Wall with a gun in a bar close to the prison and is thwarted by the bartender. Unfortunately, there are dire consequences. By the time Elizabeth gets to Wall, she is deeply conflicted about him. What went down at the bar is not his only problem. Another woman’s body has been found on the same altar. What’s more, she’s been laid out in an eerily similar fashion to Julia Strange, right down to the pale linen she’s wrapped in.
Hart takes us from there down a twisted path of deception, where things are seldom what they seem. Families are torn asunder. Monstrous betrayals beget grief, regret and retribution. Ultimately, Redemption Road is about the power of loss, memory and place. It is a dazzling evocation of what Hart calls “the search for light in dark places.”
Spenser, the poet not the private eye, said: “I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish.” This might be a mantra for Detective Inspector Sean Duffy. Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs is the fifth installment in the series (after Gun Street Girl, 2015) starring the Belfast cop and it’s right up there with the best of the genre.
It’s 1987 and Duffy is still dealing with the violence of The Troubles and being a Catholic policeman in the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary. Located in Carrickfergus, known colloquially as Carrick, RUC is the police force with the highest mortality rate in the Western world. It’s just one reason Duffy always checks under his car for bombs before he drives it. Paranoia is a way of life in Northern Ireland.
When the novel opens, Duffy and his intrepid sidekick, DC Alexander Lawson have been summoned to the local hotel to investigate a burglary. It’s not exactly a high priority theft, a missing wallet, but the victim is part of the Finnish trade mission to Northern Ireland. The local powers-that-be don’t want any of these foreign-investment dignitaries getting their VIP noses out of joint. The Finns are looking for a place to open a mobile-phone factory and Carrick is it. Duffy wryly notes:
Carrickfergus had an embarrassment of abandoned factories that had been set up in the optimistic sixties, closed in the pessimistic seventies, and were on the verge of ruin now that we were in the apocalyptic eighties.
The robbery turns out to be a hoax (don’t get Duffy started) but a plus is meeting Lily Bigelow. She is a very pretty Financial Times reporter covering the Finnish delegation’s visit who cracks Duffy up with a “War of the Worlds” joke. The next morning Lily’s body is found in Carrickfergus Castle. There is no evidence of foul play and the castle was locked and sealed when the young reporter apparently jumped into the courtyard. Duffy’s colleagues deem it a clear case of suicide, but Duffy isn’t convinced. Challenged with the second locked-room—locked-castle, really—mystery of his career (In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, 2014) he sets out to trace Lily’s movements in Belfast from the time of her arrival.
Duffy turns up a potent motive for murder in a file of Lily’s that he gets a hold of at the Financial Times. It reveals that Lily was secretly investigating an anonymous tip implicating superstar Jimmy Savile (Jim’ll Fix it, Top of the Pops), the Finns, and some powerful political players in a pedophile ring. The brass at the Times are shocked and dismayed, labeling her findings “paranoid, crazy stuff…bunk, innuendo… stories even Private Eye wouldn’t publish.” Duffy is very much inclined to disagree. Especially after he is warned off the case by his superiors and threatened by some, shall we say, menacing representatives of the suspects.
Duffy ferrets out answers in his usual relentless, bird-dog fashion, shaking out every facet of the truth. Wisecracking is more often than not his weapon of choice against hypocrisy and mendacity and he treats us to a passel of pleasurable quips. Admirably, pressure of any kind, be it peer or political, don’t scare him none, he never backs down.
On the personal side, Duffy relaxes with Ella Fitzgerald, the best single malt scotch, a bit of imported Moroccan hash in his garden shed, and when things get really hairy, Valium with a vodka gimlet.
I would be remiss if I didn’t praise the ever inventive McKinty’s particularly delicious opening scene involving the Belfast visit of Muhammed Ali. There’s a massive crowd, including Bono, and The Champ’s constant refrain of calling The Troubles-consumed Belfast “beautiful” is priceless.
True to form, Rain Dogs’ wind-up is world-class, which aptly describes this spellbinding series. McKinty melds all the elements of a mesmerizing mystery seamlessly together to give us a peerless page-turner. Plus, the best news is that McKinty has decided to keep going, so we can look forward to more of Duffy, his colleagues and the Belfast scene. Even better, in the next one he can flesh out a part of Duffy’s private life that he only just touches upon in the end of this novel.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.