BOOKS: Terrorism and a Christmas tale

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BENEATH THE BLEEDING
By Val McDermid
HarperCollins, $14.99, 416 pages

A CHRISTMAS PROMISE
By Anne Perry
Ballantine, $18, 208 pages

It opens with attacks by an ax wielding madman, has three murders committed by a serial poisoner and a football stadium blown up in what seems to be a terrorist attack.

Val McDermid’s latest mystery gives new meaning to the old saying about everything but the kitchen sink, and the action-packed plot requires all the insight of criminal psychologist Tony Hill to sort out, especially when he is still trying to recover from an ax attack.

This would be a good book to take on a long trip because it requires paying close attention to the literally explosive developments that play to current fears about terrorist bombers as well as the horrifying possibility that a celebrity footballer has been poisoned with ricin. Not to mention that Tony Hill’s mother is a viciously vengeful woman who visits her son in the hospital only to persuade him to sign a document that will help bankrupt him.

Caught in the middle of this nightmare is Detective Inspector Carol Jordan, whose patience and fortitude are severely tested when the stadium bombing results in law enforcement in the city of Bradford being taken over by a militaristic counterterrorism unit that seems to be cast from a budding dictatorship movement. The relationship between Tony and Carol, always difficult, is strained further by her concern for his health and complicated by her resentment at what she sees as his interference in the rash of killings. What makes it worse is that he is usually right in his analysis of the dark forces at work.

Ms. McDermid, while operating at breakneck pace throughout the book, adds considerably to the depth of the intrigue with detailed revelations about the personality and motivation of Youssef, who kills and maims more than 35 people when he sets off his homemade bomb. Before the attack, as he chokes down his mother’s “slow cooked miracle of spicy lamb and vegetables,” he realizes he will never eat it again. Yet what lies behind that panic attack is not at all what the reader may think at that point.

There are some deft twists as the plot charges toward its climax, especially the discovery of a poison garden in the nearby estate of a local peer. In many respects, it’s an exhausting book, and its characters reflect its tension as they dash from one disaster to another. But it’s well written topical reading, and Ms. McDermid is to be congratulated for setting most of the reader’s assumptions on their heads by the end of it all.

•••


The pathetic voices of the children in Charles Dickens’ bleak accounts of the miseries of life in the slums of Victorian London find an echo in this poignant little vignette of a Christmas book. The tale of 13-year-old Gracie Phipps and her 8-year- old friend, Minnie Maude Midway, who is “skinny as an eel,” and their desperate search for a donkey called Charlie on a freezing Christmas Eve re-creates the world of Scrooge and Tiny Tim and Little Dorrit in which compassion was a scarce commodity.

Ms. Perry has steeped herself for years in research for dozens of mysteries that chronicle the problems encountered by the metropolitan police who have to deal with suspected murderers among the aristocracy.

In this slender volume, which probably should be on the Christmas stocking list of anyone who likes a sniffle of nostalgia, Ms. Perry demonstrates her grasp of the circumstances of squalor and hunger in which slum children grew up. It was not a world sympathetic to either the young or the old and children were desperately vulnerable. It is a murder mystery that centers on Charlie, a missing donkey that pulled a rag-and-bone cart belonging to Minnie Maude’s Uncle Alf. When Uncle Alf is murdered, Charlie is stolen with his cart in which is hidden a “dazzling golden box” that the killer is after.

The two shivering girls set out through snowy streets to track down Charlie. They are fortunate enough to encounter Mr. Balthaser, owner of an exotic shop, who befriends them, offers the great treat of hot toast and jam, and warns them that the golden box contains cocaine that has already cost one life and that the killer will do anything to find.

The villain is a drug addicted aristocrat known as “The Toff” of whom Mr. Balthaser says, “He has eyes like holes in his head as if the devil had poked his fingers into his skull and left behind a vision of hell.” The story is told from the unvarnished view of the two girls, who are accustomed to a life of abuse and misery in which they have to look out for themselves because most of the adults they know are struggling to escape from the same trap.

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