- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

By Rennie Airth
Viking, $25.95, 416 pages

By Hakan Nesser
Pantheon, $23.95, 352 pages

By Louise Ure
Minotaur Books, $25.95, 288 pages

There were probably few things more frightening for a woman than walking through the blacked out city of London at night during World War II, which gets Rennie Airth’s The Dead of Winter (Viking, $25.95, 416 pages) off to a chilling and effective start.

For Rosa Nowak, that walk on a freezing night in 1944 was her last. She rejected the offer of an escort by a kindly air raid warden only to have her neck broken a few seconds later by a serial killer. Mr. Airth re-creates the wartime terror of London prowled by a man who has been killing without compunction for years and is still on the trail of those whom he considers likely to identify him. The plot is strengthened by the author’s sensitive and often humorous perception of the struggle of Scotland Yard and its remaining exhausted detectives trying to cope in a nightmare situation.

Which is what brings John Madden, retired but not really, back to the crime scene from his farm outside London. When it turns out that the murdered young woman was a land girl working on the Madden farm, the former detective is irresistibly drawn into a dark and complex mystery. Mr. Airth has written a first-class thriller, an expertly plotted and skillfully characterized portrayal of a killer at loose in a nation at war. Madden’s return is neatly knitted into the scene, with his former colleagues enthusiastic at the prospect of his previous detecting skills being revived when they are needed most. There is also an interesting vignette of things to come at the Yard in a sharply intelligent young woman officer who is fighting the first of what will be many battles for equality in what at that time is entirely a man’s world.

In this, the third of his Madden mysteries, the author is to be congratulated on an arresting combination of historical drama and criminal melodrama. It’s a difficult book to put down.


Hakan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark (Pantheon, $23.95, 352 pages) is another admirably drawn thriller from a Swedish writer who leans on the talents of his Inspector Van Veeteren to solve a series of eerie and inexplicable killings. The mystery here is not about Maria Adler’s mission to kill, but why she is committing a string of murders. The plot revolves around the desperate efforts of a team of detectives to catch her before she kills again. Which of course means they have to disentangle the motivation for her revenge.

It is not until the final pages that the hideous circumstances of Maria’s birth and the terrible dying request of her mother is revealed. In the daughter’s bleak words, “At her interment, there was one person. Me.”

Meantime, Inspector Van Veeteren and his merry, if macabre, band plunge into a situation where they have few clues to work with. Mr. Nesser injects welcome sardonic humor into his description of his detecting team and their lifestyle, especially when their personal lives interfere with being what passes for normal. They are struggling with a string of murders that are identical in style of execution yet frustratingly random.

The victims are all men, shot twice in the heart and twice below the belt, which is a clue that is not seen as such until too late. In the sad denouement there is a letter from the killer that reads in part, “I don’t need your understanding, but I want you to know who these men were whom I killed.”

Appropriately enough, the story is set against a background of a Swedish winter, swept with driving, endless rain, focusing on a desperate woman who is haunted by the last words of her mother, “Do something, my girl. Take action. Do something magnificent that I can applaud up in heaven.”

And what her daughter does, if hardly magnificent, is certainly understandable, given the bleak misery of her life. Mr. Nesser has written a fascinating study in the psychology of personal suffering.


The first lines of Louise Ure’s Liars Anonymous (Minotaur Books, $25.95, 288 pages) get your attention. “I got away with murder once, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen again. Damn. This time I didn’t do it. Well, not all of it, anyway.”

Jessie Dancing is tough. She has killed a man who she believed was a pedophile who molested Catherine, her best friend, as well as Catherine’s small daughter. Jessie was found not guilty by a jury, while a dubious detective called Len Sabin stayed on her trail. Jessie tries to blot out her past with a new job in between ferocious physical therapy sessions to keep herself in shape. As you might expect, she becomes involved in a brutal murder and finds herself a suspect. Not even her mother has any faith in Jessie, the adopted daughter who went wrong.

When Jessie discovers, hardly to the reader’s surprise, that her late friend Catherine had invented the charges that “Uncle Walter” had abused her and her child, she (Jessie) considers it, rightly so, as a “death sentence” as far as she is concerned. She killed and she lied and now she is committed to paying the price of prison despite the fact that this time she could plead self- defense.

The book moves at a fast, often brutal pace, and the odd thing is that while you feel sympathy for Jessie Dancing, she is not a likable character and her occasional lapses into pickups in bars don’t help.

Moreover, her frequent descriptions of her physical exertions in whatever gym is offering a free introductory course are tedious to read and make you wonder why she is so obsessive about the fitness of her body and less concerned about her tortured psychology.

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

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