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Villain’s savory; sleuth needs spice

Special to The Times

Mysteries and thrillers are two distinct forms of the crime fiction genre. The former revolve around the investigation of a crime by a professional or amateur sleuth; thrillers usually pit a hero against a villain whose diabolical plot is uncovered as the story progresses. Thrillers are particularly distinguished by their sense of urgency, placing the reader in the middle of the action, sometimes alongside the perpetrator.

Sometimes mysteries and thrillers get their literary DNA scrambled and give rise to memorable hybrids like Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs” or Michael Connelly’s “The Poet.” But more often than not, these genre busters can be so plodding and manipulative that slam-dunking them into the trash is the biggest thrill they will ever give. So I cracked open Nigel McCrery’s “Still Waters” with some trepidation, not sure how the novel would balance its mystery and thriller elements.

The early pages seemed promising. The prologue, a brief vignette set at a children’s tea party in World War II England, was chilling enough to keep me reading, but it was followed by a first chapter that not only identifies the killer, an elderly woman named Violet, but lays out her very precise method of dispatching victims.

Despite my fears of too few thrills ahead, I decided to give “Still Waters” a few more pages and was intrigued by the chocolate-tasting sound -- yes, you read that right -- of Det. Chief Inspector Mark Lapslie’s mobile phone.

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Whether they are rare-Scotch drinkers, closeted dinosaurs or nursery-rhyme characters, detectives these days seem required to have some noteworthy quirk to attract readers’ attention. And the Essex Constabulary detective that McCrery creates has a doozy -- a rare neurological condition in which sounds cause him to experience tastes. The condition, known as synesthesia, reportedly has been shared in various mis-wirings of the nervous system by people as diverse as Vladimir Nabokov and Duke Ellington.

And it’s ruined Lapslie’s career, making it impossible for him to sit among noisy colleagues at the office. It’s also collapsed his personal life, estranging him from his family because the sound of his children’s laughter evoked the unwanted, overwhelming taste of vanilla. Even a favorite Beatles song “suddenly flooded his mouth with rotting meat. Life was just a rollercoaster of unexpected sensations.”

Even more unexpected for Lapslie is the unwanted call he receives to return to work despite being on indefinite leave because of his disability. The case he’s asked to investigate is of a woman whose desiccated body is unearthed during the investigation of an auto accident. The case’s connection to Lapslie strikes him as strange: A police computer has linked a characteristic of the body -- fingertips cut off with shears -- to a case he can’t remember investigating. And once the victim is identified as Violet Chambers, the woman introduced in the novel’s early pages, “Still Waters” becomes less of a whodunit for Lapslie than a why-dunit for readers.

McCrery’s bold step in both revealing and obscuring Violet so early in the book allows ample space to develop her character and manipulate the reader’s discomfort as she observes potential victims leaving a bingo parlor: "[S]uddenly [her] senses came alert. . . . She could smell the lavender perfume, lovingly dabbed on from bottles bought twenty years beforehand. She could feel their rough, hand-knitted cardigans and scarves. . . . [She] noted which streets they went down, which directions they left in, who leant on a cane for support and who didn’t, who left in company and who left alone. These were her natural prey.”

Violet Chambers is the dark side of Miss Marple -- aged, seemingly benign, unnoticed but noticing with a deadly purpose.

As her obsessions and history are revealed, she becomes as repulsive and engaging a killer as any encountered in recent memory.

The challenge for McCrery is to create equally compelling characters in the team hunting her, and this is where “Still Waters” falls short. Where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling’s naivete in “Silence of the Lambs” makes her a perfect foil for the villains, and crime reporter Jack McEvoy’s obsession with finding the Edgar Allan Poe-spouting serial killer of cops in “The Poet” gives the story its urgency, DCI Lapslie’s drive to solve the case is dissipated, not enhanced, by his synesthesia.

Although Emma Bradbury, Lapslie’s detective sergeant, has some interesting hints at a complex life, and diligent pathologist Dr. Jane Catherall is unlike her “Silent Witness” or “CSI” counterparts, it is Lapslie who must carry most of the heroic burden in the novel.

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And although we may feel sympathy for him, or find him fascinating as a neurological case study, there needs to be more at stake for him personally in apprehending Violet to make their showdown memorable. Instead, it’s anticlimactic compared to Violet’s chilling search for her victims.

And the interweaving of a mysterious subplot involving a shady government agency intent on thwarting the investigation doesn’t ring true enough to make Lapslie’s transformation from reluctant investigator to maverick cop convincing.

The tactile senses of hunter and hunted make for some wonderful literary parallels and the well-drawn Essex locales and shifts between Lapslie’s and Violet’s point of view speak to McCrery’s skill as creator of several successful BBC crime series (most notably the aforementioned “Silent Witness”). Yet, “Still Waters” is ultimately more satisfying for the thrilling journey of its villain than its sleuths, a condition I hope is corrected in future installments of this promising series.

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Paula L. Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.


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