- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007


By Deborah Crombie

William Morrow, $24.95, 416 pages


Merry Christmas, and by the way, I found a mummified baby walled up in the farmhouse down the road.

The joys of the Yuletide season are thus launched in the darkness of mayhem in Deborah Crombie’s latest mystery, in which detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James find that their family festivities in a picturesque Cheshire village are bogged down in murder.

The focus of the 11-book series is the still-developing and consequently fragile relationship between the two detectives, who have not yet married, and are struggling to build a stable base for themselves and their children. James has a young son, but her situation is simple by comparison with that of her partner, Kincaid, widowed by the violent death of his wife — which continues to haunt his teenage son.

Given such a tangled background, it is surprising that the relationship between Kincaid and James survives.

It encounters an unexpected test in the midst of what was foreseen as a happy return to the scene of Kincaid’s relatively untroubled childhood. However, this proves a less than idyllic memory, and Ms. Crombie gives psychological depth to her scenario by expanding her younger characters, especially Kincaid’s teenage son, still struggling with nightmares about his mother’s death. That experience turns him into a mentor for a troubled cousin as she copes with a threatening relationship.

It is to the credit of the author that she achieves a seamless mingling of the personal problems of James and Kincaid with their discovery that the world of crime and punishment in which they live in London has pursued them into the fastness of Christmas in the countryside and confronted them with problems that not even the charms of English tradition can conceal.

The strength of the book lies in the depiction of the families, and those who emerge around them, in a rural setting more often associated with a glimpse of a medieval past than modern brutality.

However, it is a weakness that the identity of the villain of the piece is telegraphed too soon and too obviously. There isn’t much doubt from the beginning of who the sadist is lurking in the shadows.

He also proves to be a stereotypical psychopath who launched his career by torturing animals before discovering it was even more satisfying to torment and kill people. His proclivities, as usual, escape the notice of those who should be most aware of them.

Yet the book is illuminated by some lyrical descriptions of life on the narrowboats of the canal system in the county of Cheshire. Ms. Crombie has done her homework and strengthens her plot by emphasizing the threat that can emerge from the mundane.

The Texas-born author’s enthusiasm for the British lifestyle is the thread that permeates all of her books, and in none more so than this one. She even offers the added fillip of maps with an almost Dickensian flavor, which let readers track the houses and people of Nantwich and the village’s surprisingly sinister secrets.

The book does get off to a riveting start with the aforementioned discovery of an infant’s body walled up in a dairy under reconstruction — an introduction to an unconventional Christmas where holly and home cooking take a distinctly second place to death. The dead baby becomes an unlikely link to two killings, and Christmas with the Kincaids becomes a scene of violence in the snow accompanying an exploration of problems that bring the past into collision with the present.

The supporting cast provides the backdrop for an investigation that thrusts upon Kincaid what he had chosen to forget about his childhood and calls up reserves of strength in James as she gropes her way into a new family.

In a skillful twist, the key to the resolution of the mystery turns out to lie within a tragic family trying to survive on a canal boat while struggling with a dying mother, and the secret of how the death of one infant offered an opportunity for life to another. That disclosure, with its note of real surprise, is more intriguing to the reader than the predictable violent climax in which the young killer is captured and Kincaid’s son achieves a new level of understanding with his father.

Ms. Crombie leaves her fans looking forward to another episode in the Kincaid/James chronicles, and to the added possibility of an expanded family tree, which will doubtless be abloom with murders!

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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