- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2010

By Peter Robinson
Morrow, $25.99, 352 pages

By Jonathan L. Howard
Doubleday, $25.95, 304 pages

Few of Peter Robinson’s mysteries are predictable, which is one of their charms. This one hews to a tough yet somewhat hackneyed theme of the sufferings of Detective Alan Banks and his daughter when she is kidnapped by a sadistic psychopath.

Since Tracy Banks is the child of a detective and is well aware of what her father does for a living, it stretches credibility that she would invite a debonair but dubious male acquaintance to stay at the remote cottage owned by her somewhat estranged father who is also out of town. She discovers too late what she has gotten herself into and finds herself the victim of a young drug thug who rapes her repeatedly as a matter of course and is prepared to kill anyone who gets in his way.

Of course, Banks finds himself plunged into a morass that is a nightmare emotionally and professionally.

Jaff McCready is the quintessential “bad boy,” a creature of killer instincts who is also catnip to any woman foolish enough to become part of his life. And the character of Jaff is smoothly drawn although the author endows him with no redeeming features other than good looks. His capacity for cruelty and even murder are stereotypical.

Tracy’s recklessness endangers not only her own life but that of Annie Cabbot, her father’s police colleague and sometime lover. It is when Annie goes in search of Banks’ daughter that Jaff demonstrates just what he is capable of by shooting the police woman and walking out, taking the captive Tracy with him.

At last it is clear to the detective’s daughter who she is dealing with and what she can expect. And, of course, it is only a matter of time before Jaff realizes what use he can make of the fact that Tracy is the child of a prominent lawman. Banks finds himself in a position where he has to make use of his own criminal contacts in his desperate efforts to rescue his daughter.

And he does, of course, rescue her, after which he has to listen with a mixture of paternal sympathy and professionally cynical incredulity to her laundered version of her involvement with the now-deceased Jaff in which she portrays herself entirely as the victim, forgetting that her father has heard such stories before. The scene in which Jaff is killed and its aftermath is one of the more fascinating in the book, as it offers an account of what happens when a police officer ignores all regulations and becomes an outlaw.

The maverick behavior of Nerys Powell, a female police officer who is a superb shot, marks the crossing of a risky line that alarms her superiors. Powell, as she puts it “used her initiative” to shoot the bad boy in the head with a sniper’s rifle at a 300-yard range. She defends her action to a committee of high-level police assembled to pass judgment on her, and shows no regret for what she did. She admits she was “riding shotgun” on the fast-moving crisis of Banks and his daughter and the likelihood that Jaff would kill both of them.

It is Banks who points out to her critics that she saved the lives of his daughter and himself, yet Powell’s future in the police force is in doubt. Banks notes that her skill with guns will probably earn her a far better paying job for a private security company. “Maybe the Americans will take her,” he observes.The most far-reaching aspect of this latest adventure of Alan Banks and Annie Cabbot is that it reminds them of how much they once cared for each other and how much they still mean to each other.

Annie remains in critical condition as a result of being shot by Jaff, but assuming that she recovers - and it is unlikely Mr. Robinson would kill off one of his leading characters - one might predict that she and Alan Banks may eventually ride off into the sunset together.

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Begin a book with “the condemned cell stank of cats” and you will get the reader’s attention.

It is to Jonathan Howard’s credit that he can maintain the interest of his audience with a book in which the humor is as gory as it is bizarre. He is a master of the macabre and he has cooked up a rollicking parody of the swashbuckling thriller in which Johannes Cabal, his leading character, is an expert in necromancy. That means he is removed from a ghastly cell in which he is preyed on by feral cats to bring to life a dead emperor so that he can announce a new policy to a population bribed by sausages.

Cabal is an elegant cynic who takes the position that the only life worth preserving is his own. Unfortunately, the potions used to resuscitate the corpse turn him into a brain-eating cannibal after he has talked too long and it may be significant that the first person he gobbles up is his obsequious lieutenant. This may be a caution to politicians who are incapable of brevity or common sense. Cabal’s resurrected emperor serves as a warning to others. If you like the wild and woolly, this will put no strain on your mind.

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

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