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SUSPENSE: Sparse Scottish drama delivers

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Denise Mina

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Denise Mina

If a prose style could be deemed heartbreakingly unsentimental, Denise Mina is surely its foremost crime-writing champion.

A new novel by the high priestess of Scottish Noir is like bathing in dirty water and emerging somehow purified. Like running a marathon through a labyrinth of slime and muck and reaching the finish line enlightened and purged of... something.

And so it is with her new D.I. Alex Morrow instalment, The Red Road (HarperCollins, 304 pages, $30), the story of an orphaned, horribly abused teen named Rose Wilson, who commits two murders in Glasgow on the night Princess Diana died in 1997, igniting a tale of pedophilia, money-laundering, police corruption, gun-running, twisted love and much more murder.

Mina's short, precise narration and spare, utilitarian dialogue could be described as Hemingway-esque -- The Red Road is less of a whodunit than it is a who-hasn't-done-it. We're left with the laconic, conflicted, trying-to-do-the right-thing everywoman, Morrow, striving to sort the mess in the best way she can manage.

It's more than enough to propel the best crime novel of the year, so far.

-- -- --

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh (Crown, 256 pages, $27): Ho-hum, another hitman with scruples -- been there, done that. Or so it would seem, until you meet Spademan, a laconic killer in a depopulated, near-future New York after a dirty bomb has taken out Times Square.

Spademan takes kill orders over disposable burner phones and never asks why. His only scruple: he doesn't do kids, "because that's a different kind of psycho." And 18-year-old Persephone, a.k.a. Grace Chastity Harrow, qualifies for the exemption because she's pregnant -- allegedly by her father, a ruthless evangelist who sells heaven via alt-reality dream beds.

Told in blunt first-person narrative with no-quotes dialogue, the grubby slice of cyberpunk-noir that unfolds as Spademan, his motley allies and the girl are all targeted is a startling debut for Sternbergh, whose day job is culture editor for New York Times Magazine. With a promised sequel and a movie already optioned, you'll hear more of Spademan.

-- -- --

After I'm Gone, by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, 384 pages, $34): An intriguing cold-case whodunit wrapped in a sensitive, decades-spanning character study of five women abandoned in 1976 by a sketchy Baltimore businessman facing jail time.

With her long-running Tess Monaghan series, Lippman has been at the forefront of a sub-genre featuring sexy, gutsy female detectives, dubbed Tart Noir. This one digs deeper, and delivers a sad, compelling and evocative tale peppered with most of the seven deadly sins.

-- -- --

The Deliverance of Evil, by Roberto Constantini (Quercus, 576 pages, $27): A bloated (by 200 pages) Italian serial-killer opus that still manages to captivate via its rattled protagonist, care-worn Rome police Commissario Michele Balistreri.

Haunted by his failure to solve the murder of a young Church secretary as a callous cop in 1982, Balistreri grapples with a spate of similar murders in 1996. Crime, privilege, corruption and seamy Vatican-Italian politics abound, but it's Balistreri's redemptive journey that will get you to go the distance.

Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2014 A1

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