Edited by Lee Child
Simon & Schuster, $27, 464 pages
Grimoire and incunabulum.
After more than 400 pages and 11 sagas of death, disaster and madness these may be the strange words that linger in your mind. They sound more literary than sinister, but you have to pay attention.
A grimoire is a book of sorcery and an incunabulum is a grimoire printed before the 16th century and its much prized pages may be turned only by a swabbed stick on a gloved hand. It is rumored that the last owner of the precious grimoire in Ardsmuir castle on the moors of northern Scotland was a legendary creature who might have been an alchemist a courtier or a pianist if indeed he ever existed.
The setting is the castle in the rain and the story is told by Cotton Malone, a former spy who now owns an antique book shop in Copenhagen but the love of his life is still ancient books. His story is the prize of this collection edited by Lee Childs and written by an assortment of well known mystery authors.
“Past Prologue” is written by Diana Gabaldon, a former scientist with a degree in ecological biology and Steve Berry, the creator of Cotton. Together they delve into a past of battered military ghosts and time travel. What they don’t offer is answers, which makes their creation so intriguing.
Other stories in a generally excellent collection are spiced with ghoulish humor as in the case of “Footloose,” a wickedly funny account of a politics investigation focused on a dead woman who has no feet. The police probe known as Operation Podiatrist is sprinkled with puns on the topic of missing feet and other parts of the human anatomy. It is also distinguished by a killer who is found moaning in the chair to which he has been strapped with Super Glue.
His feet of course are missing and his murderer is rather proud of his handiwork. He explains to police that his victim was his rival in running a specialized mortuary and this is his revenge. Now, he asserts, his rival is forever “defeeted.”
Several stories focus on police psychology and demonstrate a capacity for dark humor in the world of detectives. Most impressive is a story reminiscent of John Ford’s laconic cowboys of the old West. The dialogue is sharp and crisp and even the horse plays the kind of role you might expect of a faithful yet determined animal dealing with two-legged gunslingers.
Another cops and robbers saga tells of a detective whose interest in the wrong women gets him in constant trouble and also lands him in a historic snowfall in Cleveland. It tells you something about the author’s skill that the blizzard take on a life of its own yet doesn’t discourage the displaced passions of the uninhibited cop after it his over.
Ancient Egypt makes an appearance in a well crafted story about a woman who talked to the bones of the dead to determine where they are buried. She is so skilled at her job that she not only digs up a recently murdered woman but offers advice on where and how to exhume the remains of a monarch dead for centuries. The fact that she is remarkably down to earth makes her a believable creature and makes people pay attention when she commands: “Dig Here.”
Perhaps predictably the weakest story is the most savage, bogged down in sadism and violence. In “Rambo on their Minds” the writing is purple-tinged and the focus is torture. The characters are banal and he plot hinges on accounts of vicious cruelty which presumably is intended to rivet the interest of the reader. As is the case with other mysteries of that genre, it doesn’t. The reader should skip it.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.
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