Being a fan of British mysteries, I’ve had Peter James on my To Read list for a while. So when Shannon from Harper Collins Canada asked if I was interested in his new Roy Grace mystery, Dead Man’s Grip, I jumped at the chance to check him out. I had imagined Detective Superintendent Roy Grace as a thin man with a handlebar mustache and Peter James’ books as P.D. James type genteel whodunnits. Turns out Roy Grace is a Paul Newman lookalike and Dead Man’s Grip, at least, is more Jo Nesbo than P.D. James. (A quick check on IMDB reveals an actor named Roy Marsden played P.D. James’ detective Adam Dalgleish several times, which must have led to my mistake.)

Dead Man’s Grip is more a police procedural thriller than a mystery. We know who the villain is almost right away; the only question is whether or not Grace can catch him in time. A traffic accident kills the son of a member of the New York mafia. The victim’s mother, heartbroken, offers a reward for information about the identity of the other drivers involved in the accident. Grace points out that the usual wording is “information leading to the arrest and conviction of someone,” and the way this victim’s mother has phrased the offer of reward hints at vigilantism. Sure enough, the other drivers in the accident start dying, in particularly gruesome ways, and Grace fights to keep the surviving driver safe.

Expecting a genteel mystery, I was particularly affected by the gore, and it was just an exciting read throughout. James isn’t quite as explicit as Jo Nesbo or Val McDermid, whose descriptions of torture can get into horrific, excruciating detail. Rather, James relies more on the power of suggestion, which in my case at least, is just as effective. One scene in particular, of a man walking around a smoked salmon factory, absolutely freaked me out. I felt like I was watching one of those horror/suspense movies with the camera zoomed right into the actor’s face, and you know, you just know that something horrible is about to happen but you can’t see any hint of it yet onscreen. Reading that scene, I completely lost my appetite for salmon, and James hadn’t described anything gruesome yet. I love it when an author can build such an atmosphere of tension, and still withhold the source of that tension from the reader.

I also like how James fleshed out the various characters. Both Carly (one of the drivers in the accident) and Fernanda (the accident victim’s mother) are portrayed as very devoted mothers, so it’s interesting to see them up against each other. Even Tooth (killer for hire) is an interesting character, chilling in his methodical approach to murder yet still more human than the Stieg Larsson supervillain who felt no physical pain. Minor things: Carly made a really stupid decision that annoyed me even though I could somehow understand her reasoning. Also, I wish I knew what Tooth’s original master plan had been, and just how much Carly’s actions had changed it.

This is my first Roy Grace novel, and it certainly won’t be my last. Other than the gripping story, Roy Grace is an interesting character as well, with a complicated love life. His wife has been missing for ten years and his girlfriend is having complications with her pregnancy. I immediately wanted to know if we will ever find out what happened to Grace’s wife (my imagination was running wild). Now, I don’t know if her storyline has been explored in previous novels, or if the question of her fate is one that long-time Peter James fans have been dying to have resolved and I just lucked out by beginning with Dead Man’s Grip. Possible good news for long-time fans then: we find out quite a bit about her story in this book.