HERE is one savage book gnawing at the heart of another. Ostensibly it's an inquiry into the fatal shooting of two seventeen-year-old pupils and the wounding of their companion by a suicidal ex-SAS hard man who allegedly stormed into their posh school near Edinburgh, gun in hand. But at the same time (and more importantly) it is a psychological fix on moody miserabhst D1 John Rebus, as he investigates the school shootings while shrugging off suspicions that he's the Her of a petty criminal who had been stalking hs fiiend and colleague DS Siobhan Clarke. No lack of evidence. The stalker perished in a fire at his home, which Rebus had been seen visiting. And Rebus has badly burned hands. which he claims were scalded when he plunged them into an untended bath. Does anyone believe him? Much bitchery and backbiting between police colleagues while Rebus loyalists risk their own reputations to keep him in the clear. Further confusion owing to the fact that one of the dead schoolboys is related to Rebus - a nugget of happenstance which he guiltily keeps to himself. Bloodlines and hang-ups wherever you turn. Some very adroit plotting which connects the dead ex- SAS man to a helicopter crash on Jura in whch top security brass were lulled and something secret (documents? valuables?) went missing. How does it all come together? Largely through an extended portrait of Rebus, who rages through the action like a man in torment. his mind and his hands on fire, his mouth veneered in nicotine, his tongue pickled in whsky, sleeping in hls clothes, snacking on fast food (a fish supper rates as top cuisine), his relationships rubbed raw, living a life so cheerless that crime prevention in Scotland seems like a sentence imposed largely to deter would-be detectives hm signing on. Everyone's got the message. DS Clarke carellly locks her handbag in her desk before leaving the room. 'You can never be too careful in a police station', she reflects. A pathologist offering advice to Rebus glumly sucks on his cigarette. 'He'd only become a smoker in the past five years, as if to test his own mortality.' Ranlun's law enforcers are not inadequate or unprofessional. But often they are stretched beyond their capacity. Under the worst kinds of stress it's their human resources which suffer first, their wounds which take longest to heal. A Question of Blood is skilfully composed and powerfully written, with a vein of compassion that Rankin taps to startling and justified effect. He gives his book an epilogue whch implies that nothng is really resolved, that justice will not be done, that crime will continue to flourish. Confined in the narrative there is a wdd beast baring its bloody teeth. It is dangerous to all, but the only casualty it claims will be itself.
BILLINGHAM'S Solitary cop DI Tom Thorn, glumly enscbncid in drab North London flat, investigates the strange serial killings of recently released rapists (apparently by a female vigilante or someone posing as a woman). He traces the beginnings of the epidemic to a case of murder/suicide twenb-five vears earlier in which the only Atnessis were two small children, now adults and vanished without a trace. Ingenious detective work, horribly inventive methods of murder, with Thorn - romantically involved with possible witness - canoodling his way into peril. Harrowing variation on theme of innocent at risk, with gallant rescuer being the one who most needs the warning 'Look behind you'. Third hit in a row for Billingham. Grimy, grisly, pungently good.
REISSUE- after fifty-six years - of well-mannered but ruthless thriller, much admred by Rayrnond Chandler and Alfred Hitchcock. Lucia, a nice middle-class American matron with her husband away at war, is first confronted with a death whose circumstances she needs to conceal, then with a blackmailer she finds herself falling for. Twice filmed (the first time by Max Ophuls, who coaxed a superb performance from James Mason as the blackmader) and clearly a book with a lasting appeal. What it applauds is a woman's determination to protect her fady come what may. Strong reader identification perhaps, or just good, civilised writing. Congratulations to Persephone Books (more information on 020 7242 9292) for brushing off the latest layer of dust. Good housekeeping, good publishing.
SINISTER ironic tale of jealousy and paranoia in the deepest Dordogne, where British expats, in flight fiom the rat race, try to refloat their lives on a tide of cheap booze and impossible dreams. Tourno and would-be novelist J John frets over shrinking funds and lack of ideas. His wife, beautiful blonde Georgia, makes curtains for well-heeled neig"h bours and shimmies into focus as a sex object for horny locals. How should John react? The green-eyed monster takes control, speeding events towards absurd misunderstandmgs and a bloody finale. A shrewd, sharp, believable tragicomedy whch disd the mushroomv menace of those dark Dordogne woo& and posts a 'Keep Out' notice for all innocents abroad. A whiff of Patricia Highsmith perhaps, but that's no bad thing if you're learning how to do it.
ON his secluded estate at Doorn, the last German Kaiser - known to the populace as Kaiser Bill - chops logs and reads P G Wodehouse to while away his years of exile. The Second World War is under way. The Nazis have occupied Holland and the Kaiser is pondering lus future. Does he now have a role to play in Germany (provided he can tolerate Hitler's gang of 'shirted gangsters')? How will he respond to a secret invitation from Winston Churchdl to flee to Britain? And how, more immediately, will he get on with Martin Krebbs, a 23-yearold opportunist SS officer who's lodged at Doorn to keep an eye on the ailing old man, but who has reluctantly fallen in love with the beautiful Jewish maid who is Churchill's courier. The vlle Heinrich Hlrnmler arrives to assess the situation and as the differences between the Nazi Party and the Kaiser's ancien rdgime become dangerously clear, a hunt to find Churchill's spy begins. Judd's novel is part lustorical fact, part sympathetic fiction. The join barely shows. Instead what's made plain are the values, the loyalties and the unexpected courage which energise and explain the characters. It didn't happen quite like this, but Judd sWy persuades you that it should have done.
SEEKER after truth, former Sarajevo detective Vlado Petric, is wrinkled from shabby safety in Berlin, where he found refuge with his wife and U daughter, by gung-ho Calvin Pine, US investigator for the International War Crimes Tribunal. to trv and find fugitive Serb general respdnsible for bloody massacre at Srebrenica. Petric joins the hunt only to discover that he has covertlv been conscri~ted for a much biggkr game leadini back to W2atr ocities and stolen Yugoslav gold. Dreams and dusions fall by the wayside as perils increase. Gruelling, exciting, eventful but resolutely unsensational. A dee~res Dect for death I I - both sudden and unfairly postponed - with sharply drawn backgrounds (the Hague, where spycatchers rub shoulders with drug barons and warlords, and Rome, where old espionage hands std wait for the stab in the back). Following the plot made difficult by memory-daunting names. But cleanly and crisply written, with a vein of sardonic asides: 'Forgive an American for the sins of his country and he'll be your h-iend for life.'
BUSY, bruising thriller that gives the lowdown on Britain's thriving porn industry, now masterminded by gangland families who deftly deal in call girls, Internet sex and deep blue movies, the high spots of which include real rape and sudden death. An investigating journo, sneaking film for a documentary, becomes a victim (her battered body turns up in the Thames), and her fellow reporter, Kirsty Rice (raring to go, but inconveniently pregnant), resolves to finish the job. Gangland politics, rough stuff and brutal revenge all set briskly in train. Not a sentence, not a second wasted. James gets on with it and delivers the goods.