Best so far

An author at the peak of his powers offers the latest in a long-running series that manages to remain fresh.

THE Detective-Superintendent Roy Grace series shows no signs of slowing down or becoming jaded, even here in book nine of the bestselling franchise.

These murder-mysteries – all centred in and around the English coastal city of Brighton – have now shifted 14 million units across the globe.

Each book in the series contains the word “dead” in the title. But for crime fiction junkies, they’re a life-affirming read; there’s always enough warmth and humour to balance the gore and body count.

Fastidiously researched and detailed, as a result of James joining the (remarkably accommodating) Brighton police on some of their raids, and also having many close friends in the force’s ranks, these crime procedurals are the best coming out of Britain today.

Only the other Peter – Peter Robinson – comes close, with his excellent Detective Alan Bank series set in Yorkshire.

Graham Greene first put Brighton on the map in 1938 in his noirish Brighton Rock. And while interviewing James a few years ago, I learned that Greene’s dark masterpiece was the book that compelled James both to write for a living and to feature his city (he’s not only a lifelong resident, James is also Brighton-born) in his work.

The author is on top form here. From the start, when 98-year-old widow Aileen McWhirter is tortured to death by murderous creeps hellbent on extracting from her the combination code of her safe, this book grips through almost every page. The thieves make off with more than £10mil worth of valuable antiques, and their haul included a rare 1910 Patek Philippe timepiece.

Despite the watch’s breath-taking monetary value, it’s the sentimental value that drives 95-year-old Gavin Daly, Aileen’s brother, both to set about recovering it and avenge his sister’s murder. And – as if this wasn’t enough – to delve into an almost century-old mystery. Gavin is also determined to discover the fate of his father, a docker and fearsome gang leader who, in 1922, was taken from their home in New York and never seen again.

The mobsters (from a rival gang) responsible for his father’s disappearance also murdered Gavin’s mother all those years ago. The young orphaned siblings were subsequently sent from New York to Ireland to be raised by members of the extended family. Quite a backstory to the present-day plot!

In adulthood, Gavin made his name and his fortune in the antiques business, in time becoming a kingpin of Brighton’s antiques trade. Naturally, he was Aileen’s adviser when it came to high-value and luxury purchases – which were all snatched away that dreadful night, as his sister lay dying an agonizing death. Gavin’s headstrong and reckless son, Lucas, also gets involved in this revenge game, with predictably unpredictable results.

What a family to get involved with! Nevertheless, Grace’s investigative team is called in to probe the murder-robbery and apprehend the perpetrators.

As always, James does a fine job of generating the team atmosphere of cops on the case, trying to piece together the scant clues.

The line-up of Grace’s team often changes, which is in keeping with police life in reality. But some old standbys remain from the earlier books, including, thankfully, the ones that provide comic relief.

The cinematic action shifts from Brighton and the surrounding south coast county of Sussex, to New York City, and thence to Spain’s Costa del Sol – or Costa del Crime, as it’s often referred to because of the large number of British crooks and ex-cons who have made this part of Spain’s coast their home.

At some points in the story arc, James expects us to suspend a bit too much disbelief, such as Grace’s need to cross the Atlantic to the Big Apple, as well as his conduct and actions while he’s prowling the mean streets of Brooklyn in New York. Also, the subplot involving a nefarious scumbag who crossed paths with Grace many years previously is overwrought and detracts from the main action.

But this is redeemed by James introducing a new facet to his lead character: fatherhood. The highly personal tone of this storyline is touching and adds greatly to the protagonist’s appeal.

Past and present are slathered in blood and menace, and James has an uncanny knack of characterising his villains in a way that makes you feel their hot foul breath down your neck.

As usual, James throws in more than a few well-concealed closing twists, and, in totality, Dead Man’s Time is James at the peak of his powers. Can book 10 get better than this? The prolific James won’t make us wait too long for the answer to that – he cranks out a Roy Grace yarn at a rate of one a year.

The tough-but-tender Grace endures a lot in this transatlantic mystery thriller – hope he has the stamina to nail the bad guys next time. I have a feeling he will.