Dear Departed, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, $24.95.
It's been such a long time since one of these books was available in the States that we actually had a customer feeding frenzy when it finally appeared. Judging from my customers, readers love a good British police procedural; judging from the spotty and bizarre behavior of the publishing industry, they'd apparently like to quash this desire. For a writer as talented as Harrod-Eagles, though, readers are even willing to go the extra mile - i.e., buy a hardcover (these books aren't published here in paperback). A few years ago, Harrod-Eagles and her wonderful series was one of our most popular; her books about Bill Slider, his deteriorating marriage and midlife hookup with the violin playing Joanna made for absolutely compelling reading, especially when combined with the author's humor and complicated yet enjoyable plots. They're very similar to Dorothy Simpson's wonderful Luke Thanet series, just a shade darker and more contemporary. And they beg - because of the detective's personal life - to be read in order.
Among Harrod-Eagles's other gifts is her obvious love of words as a medium; her chapters have titles like "Brother, Can you spare a Paradigm?" and "Aisle Altar Hymn" (say it aloud - you'll get it). Her puns don't spill over into the narrative, but the humor is always underlying everything, making her characters very appealing ones. In this installment, Slider and Joanna are now living together and expecting a baby; and the case Slider gets involved in cuts into (of course) a long awaited meeting with Joanna's family. When Slider gets called in on a case that looks like it might be a "serial", his heart sinks; but the more he looks into the brutal death of a young woman discovered in a park in the middle of the day, the more the details don't add up to a serial killer at work - it looks more like a copy cat crime than the real thing, and is thus more complicated and for lucky readers, far more interesting.
Slider and his team of officers - among them, his suave and heartbroken partner, Atherton - begin to unravel the family life of the murder victim, a beautiful young woman nicknamed "Chattie" who apparently had not an enemy in the world. Her father's favorite, she was bright, kind and hard working; she even gives a home to her problematic - and drug addicted - younger sister, Jassy. The police investigations in these novels are always believable, and while the action may be somewhat compressed, they seem realistic, as does the unfolding of the puzzle. Slider and Atherton are just a bit ahead of the reader, but when the pieces tumble into place, the whole story slots neatly together like a satisfactory puzzle should. If you are a fan of the British police novel, Harrod-Eagles is just about a perfect read; the novels are smart, funny, have wonderful central characters with interesting personal lives, and are tangy but not too tart - there's no awful aftertaste like there is when you read an Elizabeth George or a Ruth Rendell novel. Grab one if you see one - this rare treat is well worth a read.
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