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It’s a Mystery: “Dead is always a good alibi”

By (July 1, 2016) No Comment

Collecting the Deaddeadkope
By Spencer Kope
Minotaur, 2016

Fatal Pursuit
By Martin Walker
Knopf, 2016

Psychopathic serial killers are a staple of the crime genre. A notable treatment of the topic is to be found in Devices and Desires (1990), by P.D. James. In it, one woman after another is being strangled in the shadow of a Nuclear Power Station in England’s remote Norfolk headland. As is her wont, James explores contemporary morality in the nuclear age alongside the treatment of serial killing. Right up there with James, among others, is Collecting the Dead by Spencer Kope.

Magnus “Steps” Craig is a member of the FBI’s Special Tracking Unit that works out of Washington state. Steps is known as the Human Bloodhound because he has a secret sense for hunting serial killers. He can see the “shine” that people leave behind and this supernatural ability allows him to follow criminals. Think of it as colorful paint invisible to everyone but Steps.

I see the hidden; I see the shine, every touch, every footfall, every cheek on a pillow, every hand on a wall. Some might call it an aura, I just call it life energy; either way it leaves its soft glowing trace on everything we come in contact with, radiating even from the blood we leave behind…. Every shine is different and specific to a person, like fingerprints or eye scans or DNA.

Steps’ partner is Special Agent Jimmy Donovan. Jimmy is a good tracker and an expert at dissecting the minds of sociopaths. He reads people, particularly bad people, like Steps reads shine. He keeps the edgy, emotional Steps grounded and likes to joke: “I solve murders following invisible clues that only my slightly neurotic, anal-retentive best friend can see.”

Their mantra: We save the ones we can.

All Steps and Jimmy know is that they are after a monster that abducts young women, keeps them captive for a while and then brutally murders them. His calling card is a face with a downturned mouth etched in his shine—amaranth and rust—that only Steps can see. They dub him The Sad Face Killer. Bodies pile up. Then, the long arm of bizarre coincidences gives them a break. A cell phone salesman for Verizon, Chas Lindstrom, shows up with a piece of paper that was left in his truck. It’s got Sad Face’s shine all over it. They quickly nail it as a list of once and future victims. Four names are not crossed out and they home in on those.

Actually, they get Diane Parker on the case. She’s the third member of their team and their not-so-secret weapon. She’s their “intelligence analyst,” which translates into a fount of all useful and useless information. She’s their uncanny puzzle master who digs through databases in record time. Within a couple of hours, which seem like days to the waiting duo, Diane’s got the info on all four.

Now they’re in a race against time, and the manhunt takes them from state to state, county to county. Steps’ eerie skills aren’t enough: they’ve got to enlist colleagues from the FBI as well as other law enforcement agencies. Plus they’ve got hundreds of volunteers. As Steps says,

I’ve seen it in searches all over the country, neighbors coming out to help neighbors…. Sometimes it’s an official Search and Rescue team, sometimes it’s just citizens stepping up…. It’s a good reminder that the honest and decent people outnumber the vile and evil by a wide margin.

There are grotesque, unexpected twists and turns on the path to nailing this psychopath. And the windup exacts a heavy toll. We save the ones we can.

Collecting the Dead is a white-knuckled, breathtaking thriller with one hell of a cast of characters. Magnus “Steps” Craig is the neatest new hero on the genre block. The ending lets us know he’ll be back and even who he may be tracking. Let me tell you, it’s pretty scary. I can’t wait.

walkerpursuitIt’s a pleasure to report that Benoît Courrèges, known to everyone as Bruno, the chief of police in the small town of St. Denis in the Périgord region of France, is back. Fatal Pursuit is Martin Walker’s ninth mystery to feature the genteel gendarme (after 2015’s The Patriarch). St. Denis is holding its first Concours d’Ėlégance. It was the name dreamed up by Bruno’s friend Annette, a magistrate in Sarlat. He thought of it simply as a vintage-car parade. It is also the October weekend marking the name day of the town. Each year a delegation from St. Denis’s Alsatian twin town, Marckolsheim, commemorates the welcome Alsace refugees had been given in 1939 and 1940:

So the weekend of the town’s name day now included a special market with stalls and vendors from Alsace, a rugby match with a team from Marckolsheim and a visitors’ day at the vineyard followed by a feast. Lespinasse from the garage had arranged that St. Denis would at the same time host the regional heats for the French rally drivers’ championship. Father Sentout had arranged a choral service for two choirs with his counterpart from Alsace, and Antoine the boatman had organized a fishing competition. Bruno had been assigned to coordinate it all and to arrange a fireworks display to round off the celebration. It was not what he had been trained to do in his course at the police academy, but this role as impresario of civic events gave Bruno great pleasure.

As the festivities kick off, Bruno—with Balzac his Bassett Hound in tow—notes proudly that it’s quite the international gathering of tourists. The locals are out in force with a bevy of classic beauties that will be part of today’s parade and tomorrow’s sports car rally. It’s a dazzling array of vintage vehicles, but to Bruno’s eye the most striking is a white E-type Jaguar with Annette waving at him from the passenger seat. She introduces him to her friend at the wheel, an Englishman named George Young who runs a company bringing British drivers over to take part in French rallies and races. Or so he says.

But it is the car making a grand entrance at the last minute that captures everyone’s attention. It’s a Bugatti Type 35 from 1928 and according to those in the know, among them Young, it’s the car that made Bugatti’s name. The owner is Sylvestre Wémy, who, as it turns out, has many ties to the area, not all aboveboard.

As Bruno soon learns, there is another Bugatti that has Sylvestre and Young in a tailspin. It’s a model known as the Atlantic. Its real name is Type 57C, built in 1936. They only made four of them. One is owned by the Mullin Automotive Museum in California, one is owned by Ralph Lauren, a third was destroyed by a train at a railway crossing. The fourth, ah the fourth, was lost in World War II while being driven across France. It might well have wound up near St. Denis. As Bruno observes, Sylvestre and Young surely think so. What are they up to?

In between the parade, the race, and the hunt for that priceless car, a local historian is murdered. His name is Henri-Pierre Hugon and he was ostensibly doing research on the Resistance in the Périgord. Except that he was really delving into the case of the missing Bugatti. Is a missing Bugatti more important than a corpse?

Besides the murder, Bruno has other business to attend to. Félix, the son of a local cleaning lady is caught shoplifting. Bruno takes the boy under his wing and their relationship adds depth to the delightful depiction of the camaraderie of the town. Plus, Bruno being Bruno, there’s a new lady in his life, Martine, the daughter of a neighbor. She is now a successful businesswoman in London: “Another independent woman intent on her own career, Bruno thought. Why is it they’re always the ones to whom I’m most attracted?”

These reservations don’t stop him from wooing her and, of course, that includes whipping up some gourmet meals. Walker waxes poetic when it comes to food and drink. It’s one of the true joys of this series. Bruno and his friends dine frequently and incredibly well. Bruno’s preparation of his own dinners for friends or lovers is sumptuously evoked, bringing to mind another detective-slash-chef, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Just the descriptions of the wines they consume will intoxicate you.

Plus, the ever busy cop is drawn into Sylvestre’s family feud, which leads to another murder and more high-level international intrigue. Enter Commissaire Perrault of Eurojust in the Hague, better known as Isabelle, once the love of Bruno’s life. The Commissaire is running a multinational operation that involves money laundering and links to terrorist financial networks. Two of the principals are moving around St. Denis. This puts Bruno into high gear, which is where he’s at his best.

Walker’s Fatal Pursuit is a veritable feast of world-class skullduggery. A genuine plus is the passionate descriptions of the cars and the experience of driving them. This souped-up mystery is another winner.

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.