- - Friday, January 24, 2014

CROSS AND BURN
By Val McDermid
Atlantic Press, $25, 416 pages

THE MANGLE STREET MURDERS
By M.R.C Kasasian
Pegasus Crime, $25.95, 320 pages

There are few more fearsome serial killers than those who spring from the dark imagination of Val McDermid, and she has emerged as an expert on their breed.

Serial terror is her business and in “Cross and Burn,” her latest mystery, she follows through on the repercussions of a previous one-man crime wave that has almost destroyed the investigative team of detective Carol Jordan and her partner, psychological profiler Tony Hill. The pair’s differing reaction to crimes that destroyed Jordan’s family has estranged them, and she has plunged into melancholy anger primarily directed against Hill.

Ms. McDermid has a well-earned reputation for conjuring up literary terror, and her current monster sets his own records for brutalizing women. He likes to save them in a freezer and batter them when they stir to a form of life, while assuring himself that if they behaved like good wives, he would not have to resort to such measures.

Law enforcement is, of course, in pursuit of the killer, but it is unfortunately led by a woman whose ambition to rise in the business far transcends her talent for capturing criminals. Her concept of a clue is the kind of thing that keeps killers in business, and to prove it, she comes up with the unlikely theory that Hill is a suspect.

It is also unfortunate for the current victims that Jordan remains in a catatonic state over a killer’s slaying of her brother and his wife, as well as his maiming and blinding of one of her staff. Given Jordan’s toughness as a detective, it seems a little unlikely that she has deserted her job in order to brood sullenly and silently about what she sees as the failure of Hill to save her family by his profiling work.

Hill is understandably confused and hurt by his partner’s emotional reaction. It seems more likely that the two partners would seek comfort and understanding from each other rather than lapsing into bitterness — especially since the current lunatic is targeting women who look like Jordan. Her angry retreat from reality weakens the plot and leaves Paula McIntyre, the new detective, caught between trying to bring Jordan back to useful life and coping with the woman who is Carol’s successor but far from her equal.

The plot picks up tension as it moves, and has a predictable conclusion, heavily aided by Flash the dog, a canine with the kind of teeth that discourage even a murderer.

However, Ms. McDermid has not given enough credit to the resourcefulness of her leading characters. It isn’t as though they aren’t accustomed to dealing with maniacs.

Meanwhile, M.R.C. Kasasian’s “The Mangle Street Murders” is a macabre muddle of a mystery with overtones of Charles Dickens and Sherlock Holmes as its plot plods through the puddles of London and the merciless nature of city crime in the 19th century.

Eccentricity blossoms in the character of Sidney Grice, described as the country’s most famous private detective, who likes to boast of inventing the Grice Heat-Retentive Bottle that he claims keeps his tea hot for three hours. He is the guardian of March Middleton, a 21-year-old orphan with a taste for gin and women’s rights, whose new home is on Gower Street, a road that has wooden cobbles “to muffle the horses’ hooves so the sick can get some rest and the dying go to theirs a bit more peacefully.”

What makes Grice memorable is the tendency of his glass right eye to disappear despite his having had it handblown in Bohemia.

Murders abound in Grice’s London, where he operates in harness with Inspector Pound of Marylebone Police Station as they investigate gruesome killings described in unnecessary detail by the author. Mr. Kasasian, according to the book jacket, had careers ranging from factory hand to wine waiter, dentist, veterinary assistant and fairground worker before he took to chronicling murders.

His Grice leaves little to the imagination in his portrayal of corpses and hangings, including one in which the head is ripped from the body as a result of an incompetent execution. Middleton is inclined to follow his lead, although she is puzzled by his hatred of milk in his tea. It is the kind of mystery in which its bloody developments evoke a faint smile, rather than a shudder, because it is difficult to take Grice seriously. Therein lies its charm.

Story Continues →