- - Friday, February 24, 2012

By Deborah Crombie
Morrow, $25.99 384 pages

By Val McDermid
Atlantic Monthly Press, $25 416 pages

It is murder most foul in the waters of the River Thames at Henley, the home of Olympic rowing, and by the time the villain is caught, the reader has also been offered what feels like a graduate course in the grueling sport.

Many chapters of Deborah Crombie’s “No Mark Upon Her” are launched with detailed information about rowing, the toughness of “single sculling” and the “sheer unadulterated pleasure of winning a single sculling race.” Single scullers, it is noted, “were an odd lot even in the peculiar world of rowing … both revered and distrusted by other rowers.”

And when you hear what single scullers eat daily, you can understand why. “Between 6000 and 7000 calories a day, three times the average intake for an adult … every dish would be three times larger that you’d expect to find at a ‘normal’ dinner table. One oarsman ate out of a dog bowl. Others might use flower pots.”

The exhaustive detail on professional rowing dovetails with the death of an expert sculler. When the Scotland Yard detective team of Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his wife, Gemma Jones, become involved in the mysterious drowning of Metropolitan police officer Rebecca Meredith, they also find themselves engulfed in a sordid secret that reaches the upper levels of Scotland Yard.

That scandal is also deeply linked to the victim’s past. Past her prime, Meredith was wishing to make a comeback at the forthcoming Olympic games. This is why she was training in secret on the Thames near her Henley cottage until the day she didn’t come back. The discovery of her body beneath her scull is the beginning of the mystery.

Ms. Crombie, as always, builds her plot with a combination of crime and domesticity, exploring the family lives of the detective couple, their children and the fragile toddler they have adopted. They are seeking to divide their days between their own lives and catching criminals - which means cutting deals with senior police officials who are chiefly concerned with their professional lives and not their personal comfort.

The revelation that the dead woman had years earlier brought a charge of rape against Angus Craig, a deputy assistant commissioner in the police force, makes the case deeply personal for Gemma Jones and other female officers leading the investigation into the cover-up. It becomes obvious that Meredith was not Craig’s only victim. Dealing with the possibility that a high-level police officer is a serial rapist and might also be a killer develops into a nightmare that has to be negotiated at many levels, including with those most reluctant to believe it.

The author builds in a skillful subplot about Kieran Connolly, a troubled former medical technician who is still suffering from wartime injuries and whose only real friend is his dog Finn. Connolly is working with the rowers in Henley and becomes involved with Rebecca Meredith, which makes him a suspect.

The character of Connolly and his psychological suffering is sensitively drawn and adds to the book’s tension, especially when he becomes the victim of a bomb attack by the murderer and unexpectedly finds himself becoming friends with the dead woman’s ex-husband. Ms. Crombie again has turned out a gripping and nicely tailored mystery and added another chapter to her chronicle of Kincaid and Jones.

Val McDermid’s “Retribution” is a book focused almost entirely on revenge and the sick sadism of a killer. It is weakened by the fact that the reader knows from the opening the horrors that lie ahead.

Ms. McDermid has a searing touch when it comes to delving into the darkness of what a deranged mind can be, and she gives her imagination full rein in the character of Jacko Vance, who is evil incarnate. He is a man without pity who has killed often and enjoyed it, and he has spent years in prison patiently planning his escape and his vengeance on crime profiler Tony Hill and detective Carol Jordan, the people who put him there.

He doesn’t just want to kill them. He wants them to suffer horribly in the process, so he makes an ingenious plan to disfigure Jordan with sulfuric acid while she is feeding her cat. As a forerunner to the main event, he decapitates her brother and his girlfriend. The killings are blood-drenched, and no aspect of their ghastly nature is left out. He even murders his friends in case they betray him. Vance is a man with no redeeming virtue of any kind, and it says something about the book that his own inevitable demise seems belated and not nearly bad enough.

It is ironic (and the only sliver of dark humor in the book) that the only person Vance underestimates is Tony Hill’s truly awful mother, who proves more than a match for him. The only poignant aspect of what is basically an unpleasant book is how the case demolishes the tentative relationship between Hill and Jordan.

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

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