The laconic protagonists of yesteryear would have found it quite strange, all the family-talk indulged in by Deborah Crombie’s married protagonists, Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid of Scotland Yard and Detective Inspector Gemma James of the Metropolitan Police. But judging by the popularity of Crombie’s series, her many fans must clamor for it.
Only an author writing with the full approbation of her fan base would dare to spoon out a passage like this one, in which Duncan ruminates on which kid gets which old family car upon reaching driving age: “He still had his old MG, although he seldom drove it these days. The maintenance on it was a nightmare, but he was reluctant to sell it for the pittance it was worth. He had once rashly promised Kit that he would keep the Midget until he learned to drive, and he hated going back on a promise to his son. Now, however, the thought of Kit actually driving the little car horrified him. . . .” All that — and there’s a good deal more like it, involving both Kincaid & James and secondary characters — is plopped smack between the discovery of the body and the start of the investigation. Dorothy Sayers’s readers would have picketed her house if she’d tried something like it.
Luckily for readers who like a dash of murder mystery mixed into their murder mysteries, Crombie is very talented at putting together a richly atmospheric whodunit. Her speciality (domestic drama aside) is picking slices of society that most of us overlook and exploiting them for all their dramatic potential, and her latest, “No Mark Upon Her,” centers on the world of competitive rowing. Anyone who’s ever walked along a bridge over an urban river has seen them: solitary rowers in the morning mist, their sculls barely leaving a wake behind. In this setting Crombie gives us Rebecca Meredith, Crime Investigation Department officer and Olympic hopeful, who takes her craft out for a training row one evening and is found dead by canine search and rescue the next day. She leaves behind an ambitious coach, a conflicted ex-husband (with quite a bit to gain by her death), and a fog of mysterious tensions within her own police department. “You know as well as we do that the dead don’t suddenly become saints,” Kincaid reassures one of her CID co-workers in an attempt to figure out if it was a rival rower, a jealous ex-lover or even a fellow detective who may have held her under water with one of her own oars.
Dog- lovers will certainly get their money’s worth here. In addition to doing her homework on the world of rowing (the water-world descriptions are not only informative but often quite lovely), Crombie has learned a great deal about canine search and rescue, and Kincaid is sometimes envious of the superior senses (and simpler family life?) the animals enjoy. The tight-knit community of rescue-dog trainers features prominently in the novel (one of its members had a prior relationship with Rebecca, it turns out), and we learn the protocols of that often melancholy profession, chief of which is to keep the talent happy.
“The first and foremost rule of search and rescue,” we’re told, “was that the handler must reward the dog after a find, and show just as much enthusiasm for a deceased find as a live one.” Crombie’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer will be readily apparent from that snippet. As a stylist, she never resists the “and foremost” after every such “first,” and that can get wearying as the pages pile up. But as a creator, she energetically inhabits the many strange worlds she shows her readers, and that kind of enthusiasm covers a good many sins. Her characters routinely explain too much, but they care about what they’re saying, and so we do too.
The underlying irony of the investigation derives from the fact that most rowers don’t actually look where they’re going when they’re on the water — they put themselves in a channel, navigate by landmarks, and then “aim the boat and hope for the best.” Kincaid and James’s case frustrates them by often feeling equally blind, but they — and we — have Crombie to see us safe to shore.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
No Mark Upon Her
By Deborah Crombie
Morrow. 369 pp. $25.99