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British Mysteries

Sleepy Head, Mark Billingham, Avon, $7.50, and Dead Souls, Ian Rankin, St. Martin's Minotaur, $6.50.

Mark Billingham and Ian Rankin actually have quite a bit in common, though looking at Mark Billingham's covers may make you doubt it. For some reason, Billingham's covers indicate he is some kind of gory slasher author, when in fact, his books resemble Ian Rankin's thoughtful novels far more than Patricia Cornwell's. Their central characters share quite a bit of similarity - Billingham's Tom Thorne is a tormented, play-it-from-the-gut cop who has some difficulties with the powers that be. Sound familiar? Rankin's John Rebus is just a little farther out there than Thorne - nothing much good ever seems to happen to Rebus - but Thorne gets thrown the occasional bone (though Billingham usually manages to deftly snatch it away). Billigham's novel Sleepy Head is an extremely well done serial killer novel without the gore - it's more of a character study, and unusually, it's a character study of the victim as well as the killer. The killer in Sleepy Head is going around giving women strokes - but they look so natural, their deaths are viewed that way until a pattern emerges when one of the victims manages to live. The victim does live, but she's suffering from what's called "locked in syndrome" (apparently an actual syndrome according to a note at the end of the book) - her brain functions fine, but she can't speak or move. She does learn to blink, but it's a long and frustrating process. Both Thorne and her doctor become very attached to the woman for different reasons and in different ways, and a peek inside the victim's thoughts reveals how much she looks forward to their visits.

There is also a very clever plot here, complete with red herrings and hinging on various emotional ties between different characters in the novel. I was fooled completely, and surprised at the end - and any reader who enjoys what I'd call a "thoughtful thriller" will be similarly rewarded.

While I think Mark Billingham is a remarkably talented and welcome addition to the crime genre, I think Ian Rankin, the primary and perhaps most effective practitioner of this same kind of "thoughtful thriller", just can't be beat. Not only does he have the skills of the born storyteller, he has the skills of the novelist, and there is character development, theme and setting here worthy of any so called "serious" novelist. For the mystery afficionado, just think of other great British authors like Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters, and you get the picture. Having read and enjoyed Rankin's first novel, Knots and Crosses, some time ago I was delightfully surprised by his growing maturity as a writer. Dead Souls is a knockout.

The novel centers on pedophilia - gross, huh?- but it's never graphic, it's explored from the cops' point of view - Rebus is so disgusted by pedophiles he is driven to act in a way that causes real damage. The conundrum presented in the novel is an interesting one, and I don't think the reader will feel any differently than Rebus does when he sees the results of his actions. Of course, Ian Rankin is a complex writer, and the plot hinges not on one pedophile, but also on the suicide of a fellow cop - niggling away at Rebus as he can't understand it; the disappearance of the son of old school friends; and the re-emergence of a known serial killer, just released from an American prison. Rebus tries to revisit his past with varying results as he attempts to track down the missing son - he's an adult, thus just one of thousands of missing persons, and as he was an adult, there isn't much the police can or will do. Rebus enlists the help of the mother in his search, and his detective work and intuition are top notch. Not to leave anything out, however, there's also a close examination of Rebus' relationship with his recently wheelchair bound daughter, and his somewhat foundering one with his live in girlfriend. Trying to live two lives doesn't work out so well, though Rebus is almost as well able to compartmentalize as any psychopath.

This is a novel of waiting - waiting to see if the recently released prisoner will act again; waiting for the son to show up; waiting to see if the pedophile will act again. Rebus is bad at waiting, and this helps to make the novel successful as well as suspenseful. Ian Rankin is one of the most gifted writers working at the moment - infusing his characters with emotional depth, creating clever and complicated plots, and giving us, as readers, one of the more memorable characters in all of crime fiction.

The traits of the British writers, then, seem to be complexity, emotional and otherwise, paired with wonderful writing and smart (or more than smart) plotting. There are, of course, other recent examples - Val McDermid, Peter Robinson and Minette Walters - to name just a few. If you want to read a novel with your brain fully engaged in the "on" position, reading a Brit is the way to go.

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