“Crossbones Yard,” a first novel by the British poet Kate Rhodes, is a fast-moving, entertaining mix of sex, suspense and serial killings. It’s billed as the start of a series built around 32-year-old psychologist Alice Quentin, who is smart, good-looking and exceedingly trouble-prone.
In a brief opening scene, we see Alice as a child, hiding in a closet while her drunken father beats her mother. Then we leap forward a quarter-century to meet her as a successful career woman, but one terrified of elevators. Her claustrophobia began with those bad times in the closet.
The London police sometimes call on Alice for advice, which leads her to meet a creep named Morris Cley, a suspected serial killer who’s being freed from prison. Cley takes a shine to Alice, who’s petite and blonde — you’re his type, a policeman warns — and we fear we’ve not heard the last of him. Meanwhile, Alice is trying to break up with Sean, a handsome young surgeon: “It was impossible not to fancy him,” she sighs. They’ve had an intense romance, but she prefers “low-commitment sex” — and he’s not taking it well.
On one of her nightly runs, Alice chances upon a young woman’s body outside Crossroads Yard, a cemetery where prostitutes were buried for hundreds of years because the clergy denied them hallowed ground. Her discovery of the mutilated body brings a handsome detective named Alvarez into her life. Soon, he’s making moves on her, and she’s finding it hard to resist, despite her rule against married men. (Alice’s difficulty in resisting handsome men kept reminding me of Noel Coward’s ditty “Alice Is at It Again.”)
She’s also trying to cope with her brother, a golden boy who’s been undone by bipolar disorder and drug addiction. Then, out for another run, Alice finds a second woman’s body; both victims were cruelly cut with knives before dying. Alice starts receiving letters warning that she’s next: “You don’t know what real pain feels like yet.”
Lurking in the background we have Marie Benson, who, with her husband, murdered 13 women. She’s in a mental institution now, and he’s dead, but the new killer is imitating their nasty methods. Alice reluctantly interviews Benson, who hints that she knows who’s targeting our beleaguered heroine. Alice worsens her peril by not cooperating with the police. When she’s put in a hotel for protection, she eludes her none-too-bright police guard and ventures into the night, where new dangers lurk.
But who’s the killer? Sean, the rejected surgeon, who’s handy with a scalpel? The surly, sexy detective Alvarez? The creepy Cley? Her beloved but certifiable brother, who carries a knife and sleeps in his van? Or the virile Dane who’s noisily sharing Alice’s guest room with her best friend? Rhodes kept me guessing here, although it wasn’t hard to predict that the claustrophobic Alice would wind up trapped in a coffin-like space before the story ended.
All this unfolds briskly and is mostly fun to read — perhaps a little too much fun. Rhodes keeps putting Alice in one dangerous spot after another, not all of them believable. The worst moment arrives when she awakes one night and hears someone in her apartment. Fearful that it’s the killer, she throws open the window and — she relates — “hurled myself into space.” That’s how the chapter ends.
We flip the page and find that Alice has miraculously been spared the 30-foot drop to the pavement that she’d expected. Many years ago, when I eagerly followed the Saturday afternoon serials at our neighborhood movie house, I didn’t mind seeing one episode end — and, a week later, the next begin — with hokum like that. Today, however, I expect talented writers to spare us such miracles or find an editor to help them do so.
First-time novelists are understandably tempted to offer us a thrill a minute, but here those thrills sometimes detract from Rhodes’s otherwise capable storytelling. Her dedication of the novel to all those women buried in Crossbones Yard suggests her serious intent. Next time out, she should minimize the funny stuff and let her smart and interesting heroine focus on the often ugly but ultimately fascinating world of reality.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Kate Rhodes
Minotaur. 310 pp. $24.99