A deadly hunt and ancient riddles


A deadly hunt and ancient riddles

Two new novels kept DEBORAH STEINMAIR turning the page to unravel more mysteries.


THIS week, two books captivated me for completely different reasons. Both are to some extent whodunits, with well-defined characters, but that's where the similarities end.

I'll start with the crime novel: Jeffery Deaver's character Lincoln Rhyme has stolen my heart — he's a brilliant forensic expert who was once a detective in the New York Police Department but was injured on the job and left paralysed, a quadriplegic. He uses a sophisticated wheelchair and the latest technology, is capable of moving only one finger, and is happily married to the sexy Amelia Sachs. He loves whiskey and puzzles. He is assisted by Thom Reston, his gay assistant/caretaker with a sardonic sense of humour.

Another unforgettable character Deaver has created is Colter Shaw, who has featured in three novels and now reappears in Hunting Time. He's a wanderer in a Winnebago, a bounty hunter. His father was a survivalist, and he's a sort of MacGyver and strategist. His mind is filled with his father's teachings, such as: never engage in a fight if you can avoid it, which sets him apart from Jack Reacher, who constantly finds himself embroiled in violence. Colter remains cool-headed, calculating probabilities in terms of percentages.

Colter is approached by a philanthropic businessman to find and protect his employee and her daughter, who are on the run. Allison Parker is a brilliant engineer who designs solar and nuclear devices to make the world a better place. Her ex-husband, Jon Merrit, is an alcoholic and used to be a short-fused police officer. When he breaks her cheekbone, she has him arrested and plans to disappear under the radar with her daughter. Unfortunately, he's released early on good behaviour. Fellow inmates speak of his murderous revenge plans. He's hot on her trail.

To make matters worse, Allison's teenage daughter, Hannah, sympathises with her father and reveals their location to him. In addition to Merrit and Colton, two hired guns are also pursuing them. It's a race against time involving messy violence that will take your breath away. I devoured it in a day because I had to know what happens next.

After you've read the book, we can discuss the ending, which leaves me with mixed feelings. Deaver is an incredibly clever weaver of plots and intrigues, but to my mind he misled the reader in this novel. This kind of practice is characteristic of domestic noir, but I'm not sure if it's justified in crime fiction. Or is this a hybrid? Nonetheless, it's a rollercoaster, a runaway train, a reading experience full of adrenaline and white lightning.

I'm saving the best for last: here's one of those novels I simply can't recommend highly enough. If you ask me, it resides on that dizzying height where The Dictionary of Lost Words, Lessons in Chemistry, The Bookbinder of Jericho and Miss Benson’s Beetle are situated. It's dark and atmospheric, conjuring vivid images that linger. It unfolds in the distant past (1938) and the recent past (1997), on the British coast.

In the distant past, the young Lord Goldsborough erected a cathedral of glass, later known as The Cathedral of the Marshes. He was a dark character, full of anger and misogyny. As the sole heir, he ruled over his sister, Lady Vita, with an iron hand, keeping her away from the outside world. She was sensitive and emotional. Stories abounded in the region, including rumours of incest.

In the recent past, the cathedral has become a safety risk: the glass panels in the roof began to break and fall to the ground. A boy is impaled by falling glass. Children are warned to stay away. Eve Blakeley, on holiday with her mother and brothers in her deceased grandmother's studio, a mountain cabin with a sea view, dares to enter the dangerous cathedral one evening with an adventurous boy. She sees a painting of herself and something traumatic that she blocks out. The boy pulls her away from falling glass and is injured himself.

After this, Eve becomes quiet and withdrawn. She struggles to find her place in the world. After her mother has a fatal accident, her brothers want to sell the mountain cabin, and she returns there for the first time since childhood. She's a struggling artist trying to cope with her mother's death. She wants to go through her grandmother's possessions before they're discarded. She's searching for answers and finds a few tantalising clues. She encounters a mysterious, dignified older woman bedecked in jewels, who offers her a handful of cash to paint her portrait. There's something familiar about the woman.

In the distant past, the reader gets to know Eve's grandmother, Dodie Blakeley. She lived in the mountain cabin as a young artist and befriended the emotionally unstable and suppressed Vita. There's a lesbian element, always a plus in a novel if you ask me. Of course, Vita's brother disapproves of the friendship.

Now the reader must follow the breadcrumbs and connect the dots to learn who Eve is and who Vita and Dodie were. And what is the tantalising secret of the cathedral, which has been restored and now houses exotic fruit trees and birds?

Polly Crosby's writing is exquisite, and scenes unfold like a movie in front of your eyes. The reader becomes immersed in forbidden loves, wasted lives, and a descendant's chance of realisation and individuality. It's an evocative love story and a book to be read slowly, savouring the words, with characters that linger in your mind.

Who, what and where?

Hunting Time by Jeffery Deaver was published by HarperCollins and costs R358 at Exclusive Books

Vita and the Birds by Polly Crosby was published by HarperCollins and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Crosby, Stills & Nash sing: “Cathedral".

♦ VWB ♦

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