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It’s a Mystery: “Rule to live by: no body, no death”

By (August 1, 2016) No Comment

The Sixth IdeaTracySixthIdea
By P.J. Tracy
Putnam, 2016

When the Music’s Over
By Peter Robinson
Morrow, 2016

The Monkeewrench gang is back and that is cause for celebration. The Sixth Idea is the seventh addition to this entertaining, award-winning series by P.J. Tracy (the pseudonym of a mother-daughter writing team). In 2003, the debut novel Monkeewrench introduced a group of highly eccentric computer wizards. Not the least of their fascination is that their origins and real identities are hidden under layers of world class subterfuge. This motley crew uses their software company’s considerable resources to help the cops solve the unsolvable.

In the current installment, Minneapolis homicide detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth, the savvy cops who are a mainstay of the series, once again turn to the Monkeewrench experts—Grace McBride, Annie Belinsky, Roadrunner and Harley Davidson—to unravel a baffling murder case:

Annie could manipulate any situation with Southern charm and cunning, and Roadrunner was so technically brilliant he stunned any audience into silence when he spoke about his craft, even if he was wearing a Lycra biking suit…. In the end, Roadrunner always delivered the goods that only he could conjure.

Grace and Harley, on the other hand, were so intimidating in their own distinct ways, they could chase demons out of a room just by being there, and some people found Grace’s refusal to enter any space unarmed off-putting. Silly, but true.

The two victims are Chuck Spencer and Wally Luntz and the connection between the two is that they’re descendants of the men who worked on a top-secret science project in 1957. The detectives learn this from Lydia Ascher, a successful artist who lives in the area. She was supposed to have lunch with Spencer. She and Spencer were seated together on a plane the day before. And in one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments, she learned that his father and her grandfather were part of the original team of physicists working on that project.

Lydia divulges that Spencer had a website called the Sixth Idea dot net ostensibly to reach out to other descendants and their relatives. A website as far as Magozzi and Rolseth can fathom, that has disappeared. Hence their reaching out to Monkeewrench and the Beast:

The Beast was a parallel processing miracle of Monkeewrench design that could sort through massive amounts of data, scour the Web, and find connections humans could easily overlook—if the Pope was connected to a South Africa penguin, it would eventually find out how.

While the gang is busy feeding the Beast, several bizarre incidents cross the detective’s paths. An elderly, terminally ill man who is almost completely paralyzed, disappears from his home. And an Alzheimer’s patient goes missing from his care facility. Then Lydia finds two dead men in her basement. One is her neighbor and friend who always had her back, and the other a man she kept seeing at the airport. Bingo! What emerges is that it’s all eerily connected.

Among the clues are notes left by Lydia’s grandfather, Donald Buchanan, in the family mausoleum. Sixty years earlier—post Hiroshima and Nagasaki and long before the internet—an elite team of scientists covertly developed a blueprint for obliterating infrastructure without massive loss of life. Known as The Sixth Idea, its purpose was to disrupt governments and agencies yet minimize human damage with a not-yet-developed technique for harnessing the electromagnetic pulse the bombs generated. Buchanan was working on the technique, trying to find a way to channel the destructive energy and direct it to specific targets without the toxic fallout of a multimegaton bomb. The success of this futuristic weapon depended on keeping the blueprint under wraps until technology caught up.

Decades later, the present-day keepers of the secret weapon are conducting small-scale trial runs with scary, undetectable consequences, while the descendants of the original group are being obliterated at an alarming rate. It takes every ounce of skill the Monkeewrench gang can muster to track down the killers and unlock the mystery of who is pulling the strings and why.

Like all the novels in this series, The Sixth Sense is a killer read. The dialogue is razor sharp, funny and original. Elmore Leonard comes to mind. The complex cast of characters carries off the twisty original plot with consummate skill.

RobinsonmusicsoverWe move all the way from Minneapolis to North Yorkshire, England, the setting of When the Music’s Over, Peter Robinson’s 23rd Alan Banks mystery novel (after 2015’s In the Dark Places). Banks has finally been promoted to Detective Superintendent, a move that was more than broadly hinted at as early as 2014’s Children of the Revolution by his boss AC Catherine Gervaise.

It opens with a meeting that Gervaise, when pressed, characterizes as “very hush-hush.” Indeed, the arrival of Chief Constable Frank Sampson—soon, it was whispered, to be Sir Sampson—indicated that something out of the ordinary was up. When he was followed shortly by the new police and crime commissioner, Margaret Bingham, Banks knew that something important must be brewing. But the last person to arrive is the biggest surprise of all: His old chum Dirty Dick Burgess, who is now some sort of special agent at the National Crime Agency (NCA), more commonly known as the British FBI. Of the eight people seated around the table, there is one that Banks doesn’t know at all, Janine Francis, a lawyer from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). And one still only vaguely familiar to Banks, Adrian Moss the county force’s new media liaison officer (i.e., political spin doctor).

The chief constable gets right to the point. The matter at hand is historical sexual abuse. He brings up Operation Yewtree and its current investigations into sex crimes predominately against children and primarily by media personalities:

Historical abuse. The words brought about an immediate sinking feeling in Banks’s gut. A function of the political correctness of the times…it often turned out to be a witch hunt where victims were often disappointed and the reputations of innocent people sometimes went down in tatters. No detective in his right mind wanted to be part of a historical abuse investigation.

The meeting is turned over to Assistant Chief Constable McLauglin (‘Red Ron’) who gets down to “brass tacks.” Turns out they’re going to be investigating Danny Caxton, celebrity, personality, and presenter before presenters had even been invented. It immediately brings to mind the case of superstar Jimmy Savile who came to prominence in the sixties (Jim’ll Fix It, Top of the Pops). The now disgraced Savile, who died in 2011, abused hundreds of victims over two decades before he was implicated. His case recently surfaced in Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs.

Danny Caxton, thought Banks. Shit. Household name. “The Man with the Big Smile.” Caxton had started his career in the late fifties with a few pop hits. He wasn’t a rock and roller, more of a crooner. From what Banks could remember, Caxton obviously had good business sense…. In the early sixties, he started to diversify…he quickly became the regular host of a popular talent-spotting program called Do Your Own Thing! Which lasted well into the eighties. That was his catchphrase, too: “Do your own thing.” He would have known Jimmy Savile, Banks realized. They were of the same generation.… He had married a pop singer at some point and there had been an acrimonious and public divorce not long after.

“I’m surprised to hear he’s still alive,” said Banks.

“Very much so,” said McLaughlin. “At eighty-five years of age.”

According to Red Ron, the offense took place in the summer of 1967 when Caxton was almost at the height of his success. The complainant in the case is a woman called Linda Palmer. She was fourteen years old and on holiday with her parents. She first called ChildLine and they told her to get in touch with the local police. Banks had heard of her. Palmer was a poet, she lived near Eastvale and had been written up in the paper once or twice. She reported the incident shortly after it occurred. It was derailed for some reason and Caxton was never charged:

“Just how wide is this investigation?” asked Gervaise.

Burgess looked at Chief Constable Sampson, who put on a suitably grim expression and said, “So far, according to the NCA, we have seven independent complaints about Danny Caxton spanning the years between 1961 and 1989. All from females between the ages of fourteen and sixteen at the time…. The CPS also happen to feel that ours is one of the crucial cases, that it has a better chance than most of netting a positive result.”

“Why is that?” asked Banks.

“Simply this,” said Chief Constable Sampson. “Linda Palmer has informed us that, in her case, there was someone else present. There was a witness.”

Once Banks interviews Palmer, any and all doubts disappear. She is credible and completely charming and he is more than a little smitten. Unfortunately, she can shed no light on the second man, though she is adamant about his presence.

Then he interviews Caxton, who is, as far as Banks is concerned, anything but credible. He’s arrogant and unpleasant and denies everything. Once a handsome man, he now looks like “an aging bird of prey without its plumage.” To Banks, Caxton is a nasty piece of work that is guilty as sin. How to prove it?

While Banks is busy dusting off old unsolveds, DI Annie Cabbot, Banks’ colleague on Homicide and Serious Crimes, has her very capable hands full with a more contemporary crime. A 15-year-old white girl is found dead on a country road near Eastvale. She is naked and evidence suggests that she was sexually assaulted by several men before being thrown out of a vehicle. She managed to make her way along the road looking for help before being approached by another vehicle. Instead of helping her, the driver brutally beats her to death. Cabbot’s team manage to identify the girl as Mimosa Moffat, whose mother Sinead, a heroin addict, named her after a posh drink she had once at a wedding. The ME identifies the attackers as being of Pakistani descent. Along with a number of other young girls from the area, the victim was probably groomed, as it’s called, by local British-Pakistani males for sexual exploitation. Considering the impoverished background of the girls, the attention of the groomers couldn’t be more seductive. As one of the groomed girls tells it:

They always said we were always welcome to everything they’d given us, and kept on giving us – drinks, food, free taxi rides, jewelry sometimes mobiles, top-ups, and later some coke and phets and weed. Even money. None of us had, like, jobs, or parents that had any money to give us. Maybe we felt what we did, you know, was like a way of paying for it, doing a favour for a friend. I mean men wanting sex with me was no big deal. They’ve been doing it since I was twelve, including my first foster father and my stepbrother. I didn’t get a chance to say no to them and they didn’t pay me for it.

When the Music’s Over is Peter Robinson at the top of his form. We go from the summer of love in 1967 to the summer of Brexit. He handles xenophobia—the dark side of immigration, sexual assault and the excesses of celebrity privilege with ingenuity and intelligence. Music is integral to Banks’ life and every Robinson novel is laced with musical references. As I have said before, Banks has evolved into one of our most appealing cops and he just gets better and better.

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.