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British Mysteries

In a Dark House, Deborah Crombie, William Morrow, $23.95.

Two of my very favorite authors are Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George. While I haven't liked all of their books, I've respected all of them, and the ones I've liked, I've come to regard as classics. Crombie's Dreaming of the Bones is just such a book, and her newest entry in her Kincaid/James series is an extremely strong one. In a Dark House is an ambitious novel in many ways, and it's never disappointing on any level. Combining the story of a terrible fire and the saga of the firemen who are called out with increasing regularity to increasingly similar fires, Crombie manages to weave some of the history of London into her story through a skillful use of chapter epigraphs from various Dickens novels, and comparisons of the present day fires to famous fires of the past. When a body is found in one of the fire sites, Kincaid is called from Scotland Yard to supervise - the building had belonged to a prominent MP and kid gloves are needed.

The body complicates things in more ways than one - it turns out it could have been more than one missing woman, and tearing a page from the skills of writers like Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell, Crombie manages to infuse all the women's lives with interest, suspense, and mystery in almost equal amounts. In the hands of a less skillful writer, I don't think this could have been pulled off, but Crombie handles it more than deftly. The kidnap/disappearance of a 10 year old girl and her mother become interwoven with the disappearances of the MP's daughter and the caretaker/roommate of a handicapped woman. It's this handicapped woman, Frannie, who draws in Gemma - it's not really Gemma's case but she gets a call from a friend, a visiting Anglican priest, who had been looking in on Frannie and who, with the disappearance of her roommate, is very worried about her.

One of the other strengths that both Crombie and George share is a set of central characters that are almost as interesting as the mystery itself. Sometimes I prefer Crombie's more sane characters who are tormented more by life events than inner angst. In this novel, Duncan and Gemma are both worried that they might lose custody of Kincaid's son, Kit. His grandmother is contesting for custody on the basis that Gemma and Duncan are never at home - and the balancing acts that they perform to keep their family life running while both working more than full time jobs is certainly evocative and familiar to many contemporary readers. It also serves to illustrate the grandmother's point.

This is a completely compelling novel from first page to last - I read it through in barely more than one sitting - and it's great fun to see the skills of this fine writer improve and flourish with each book. Whenever I finish one, I can't wait for the next - what better recommendation could there be? (Robin)

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