- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

In Piece of My Heart (William Morrow, $24.95, 336 pages), Peter Robinson’s music-loving police detective, Alan Banks, appears once again, this time investigating the murder of a freelance journalist, whose field of expertise is the music Banks loves most, that of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The novel shifts back and forth between 2005 and the iconic year 1969, when another detective, Stanley Chadwick, who is appalled by the popular music of the day, is investigating the murder of a young girl at an outdoor rock festival near Leeds, England. These two investigations, 36 years apart, will of course become more and more relevant to each other as the plot unfolds. The interweaving of the two stories is skillful and intriguing.

Along the way, Mr. Robinson explores the differences between the generations — that of Chadwick, a veteran of WWII; Banks’ parents; that of Banks; and that of Banks’ children, one of whom has become a rock musician. Banks is, as ever, tolerant and understanding, and embraces almost all music but rap. Though he cannot understand his children’s openness about their sexual lives when he, a divorcee, is embarrassed to discuss his own.

Lovers of the music of the 1960s and 1970s will find this book a feast of memories, and for those too young or too old to recall the music of that era, Banks and other characters do an excellent job of explaining.

Peter Robinson is a first-rate writer, and this book is evidence that the British mystery novel is not dead, as some have claimed.

Lee Child, author of The Hard Way (Delacorte Press, $25, 371 pages), is also British-born, but he chooses to set his popular Jack Reacher series of novels in New York City, though Reacher will make an important trip to England during his investigation.

Reacher, a retired military cop, is hired to find a kidnap victim, the wife of Edward Lane, another ex-military man who has gotten rich running a soldier-for-hire operation. In the process, he is drawn into Lane’s world and the world of the people who despise Lane, leaving Reacher and the reader out-and-out puzzled as to whom to believe.

To find this book realistic, a reader will need to believe that the Pentagon and State Department either hire or contract out all sorts of unsavory people to do their dirty work in foreign countries.

The Pentagon and State Department no longer hire Lane directly after he was discovered to be taking money from both sides. But subcontractors still do — and yes, a corporation named Halliburton is mentioned.

Mr. Child’s book is action-packed, and Reacher, though up in years, can still throw a mighty wallop, skillfully use weapons and throw a karate kick. The book moves a bit slowly at first but soon becomes a first-rate page-turner that few readers will put down. With its sparse writing style, abundance of dialogue, and chases by foot and car, the book will almost certainly be turned into a movie, as other books by Mr. Child have.

Readers should be warned that this is not a book for the feint of heart. The descriptions of the lives of impoverished mercenaries in African prisons, for instance, is enough to induce nightmares.

“The Hard Way” is not fiction of the same quality as Peter Robinson’s, but it is a good read.

St. Martin’s Minotaur has developed a deserved reputation as this country’s premier publisher of quality mystery fiction, introducing first-time authors such as American Michael Kronenwetter and previously untranslated European authors such as Scandinavians Karin Fossum and Kjell Eriksson, writers who can lay claim to some of today’s best-written fiction.

With John Hart and his first novel King of Lies (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $22.95, 310 pages), St. Martin’s Minotaur has done it again. Mr. Hart grew tired of the law and took a year off to write this book, in which a lawyer named Work Pickins becomes the chief suspect in his father’s murder in Salisbury, N.C. Much of the book reads like a Southern small-town novel: the intricacies of the Pickins family relationships are the chief subject.

When the novel begins, Work is in a jail cell with a client he is paid by the government to defend. The defendant refused to listen to his advice, which could have gotten him a lesser sentence. Instead, he has been given life without parole.

“I’ve heard it said that jail stinks of despair. What a load. If jail stinks of any emotion, it’s fear: fear of the guards, fear of being beaten or gang-raped, fear of being forgotten by those who once loved you and may or may not anymore. But mostly, I think, it’s fear of time and of those dark things that dwell in the unexplored corners of the mind. Doing time, they call it — what a joke. I’ve been around long enough to know the reality: It’s the time that does you,” writes Mr. Hart. That quality of writing persists.

As one would expect with a trial lawyer turned author, there is much of the law here. For instance, Work tries to decide whether to answer police questions he would have advised a client not to answer.

There is also much here about the Piedmont region of the Carolinas north and south of Charlotte, which in the last 40 years has prospered economically. Such wealth has its advantages, but as this novel well describes, it brings problems that eat away at the soul of a region and its inhabitants.

Lloyd Shaw is a retired professor of English.

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