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Updated Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 07:01 AM

New crime fiction: a trio of 'tartan noir' mysteries

By Adam Woog
Special to The Seattle Times

There's something about Scotland that mixes well with crime and mystery fiction. Is it the stark beauty of the land? The toughness and dark humor of its natives? Whatever. In the absence of new books by the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina or Morag Joss, here are three excellent examples of 'tartan noir.'

Fin Macleod, the protagonist of Brian May's stunning "The Black House" (SilverOak, 368 pp., $24.95), is an Edinburgh cop who reluctantly returns to his boyhood home: the Isle of Lewis in the forbidding Outer Hebrides. Someone has murdered a thoroughly evil man who was recently accused of raping a clergyman's young daughter.

MacLeod confronts a shockingly unchanged world of insular, innately suspicious islanders. At the same time, he descends down a black hole of memories he'd just as soon forget — not least because the murdered man was a vicious playground bully, Macleod's implacable enemy, back in the day.

As the cop works the case — more often than not interviewing people he knew intimately — his memories and the present-day case slowly merge, ending in a breathless climax (during a hunting trip on an island even more remote than Lewis) and a revelatory finale.

May's writing, in this first of a trilogy, is pitch-perfect — so vivid that you can practically hear the gulls' screeches and smell the sea wrack on the shore.

"The Vanishing Point" (Atlantic Monthly, 416 pp., $25) finds Val McDermid taking a break from her popular series about criminal profiler Tony Hill. The new book starts with a terrifying incident: At Chicago's O'Hare airport, a fake security officer spirits a 5-year-old boy away from his guardian, Stephanie Harker.

(OK, so "The Vanishing Point" is partly set in the States — it's still an excellent book from a wily Scottish pro.)

Frantic to find the boy, the panicked woman explains to an FBI agent that he is the son of her former employer, a British reality-TV star. Harker, hired to ghostwrite the star's memoirs, has become increasingly enmeshed in her employer's life — to the point of raising the boy after his unstable mother dies of cancer.

The airport authorities, confronted with the panicked woman, think at first she's unbalanced. Once things get straightened out, the FBI enters the scene.

The book alternates between Harker's efforts to find the boy and her memories of his manipulative and unpleasant late mother. Although the flashbacks slow the otherwise breakneck pace, they have an important purpose: McDermid wants to examine the complex, sinister life beneath the TV star's gaudy veneer.

McDermid, as always, writes sharply about human connections in times of great stress or danger. She's also excellent at ratcheting up the tension by keeping the reader off-balance.

And she's a canny observer of the passing scene. In this case, it's the superficial and often grubby nature of fame — something that the author, a former tabloid journalist, knows well.

A.D. Scott's "Beneath the Abbey Wall" (Atria, 352 pp., $15 paperback) is her third book revolving around a small Highlands newspaper that seems quaintly old-fashioned even for the book's setting in the 1950s. One dark evening, a murdered body is found: the newspaper's office manager, the hyper-efficient Mrs. Smart.

Why would anyone want to have harmed this self-contained and seemingly innocuous woman? Well, the secrets start to come out at the reading of her will, bitterly dividing several people who knew her — among them her tyrant of a husband, as well as the paper's deputy editor and the matriarch of an itinerant family of tinkers.

While still dealing with murder, deceit and secrets, Scott's book is much more genteel than May's and McDermid's bleaker offerings.

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.










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