Fell Purpose, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Severn House, $15.95.
Harrod-Eagles is far and away one of my favorite writers of British police procedurals, though that frames it too narrowly. She’s one of my favorite writers, period, partly because she makes it all look so easy. She juggles her love of word play, puns and humor with a well told story and wonderful characters. Through the course of the novels, her main character, Bill Slider, has fallen in love as a married man with violinist Joanna, and he’s left his wife, married Joanna, and had a child with her. Such is Harrod-Eagles skill that none of these things make the series lack vitality. It’s merely shifted the background energy. The front-ground energy is still focused on telling a wonderful story.
It has been a year or two since her last novel was available, so I’d forgotten the pleasures that reading this particular author provides. The stories are fast moving and the array of characters, from the police to the “villains,” as they so charmingly say in Britain, are well drawn and complex. The story starts with the discovery of a young girl’s body outside of Wormwood Scrubs. Because the Scrubs isn’t in the best neighborhood, the case takes an interesting turn when the girl turns out to be enrolled at a fancy school, as well as one of it’s academic stars. The question on the minds of the bereaved parents (or one of them, anyway) is why on earth their beloved Zellah was dressed like a prostitute.
As with many good writers, Harrod-Eagles focuses on the victim. It’s Slider’s firm conviction that the case won’t be solved unless he can understand Zellah, and a well written book wouldn’t exist without the reader having a stake in what’s been lost. The parents and the rotating list of suspects, all of whom seem to have known different slices of Zellah, combine eventually for a clear picture. The brisk police work that takes Slider ad his team to their conclusion is as entertaining and well done as ever. Even better, Harrod-Eagles simply can’t resist a good pun or turn of phrase. One of her more delightful creations is Slider’s boss, Inspector Porson, whose turn of language is just this side of off, as in “Rhoades wasn’t built in a day” or “You can’t teach an old leopard new spots,” which never gets old, and adds some levity to an otherwise grim story.
Unlike a writer like Elizabeth George or P.D. James, Harrod-Eagles is never unrelievedly bleak, and that’s a comfort. The story is, in fact, grim, but Slider is a man doing his job who at the end of the day returns home to the comforts of his wife, who gently points out to him “You avenge them, the wronged dead...They can lie quiet. You’ve done what she needed.” And like Harrod-Eagles herself, Slider can at last relax, knowing he’s done his job. These books are a pure delight.
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