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Mike Ripley's Crime File - September 2007

'The Chameleon's Shadow' by Minette Walters; 'Exit Music' by Ian Rankin; 'Murdering Americans' by Ruth Dudley Edwards

The psychological thriller, which relies on the almost forensic examination of its characters' innermost thoughts and fears, is one of the most difficult types of crime novel to write. Not only does Minette Walters do it well, she makes it look easy!

The Chameleon's Shadow (Macmillan, 17.99) is her latest and seemingly bang up to date in that the protagonist is a war-damaged British army officer who has survived a roadside bombing in Iraq. Yet Lieutenant Acland, though cruelly disfigured, is far from the only damaged character here for this is, at its heart, a story about a much older conflict: the battle between the sexes.

While lesser writers have to resort to gruesome descriptions of bloody violence to grip their readers, Minette Walters conveys the horrors of complex human relationships mostly off-stage or in reported documents and e-mails. And there certainly are horrors here in abundance, usually to be found within basic human relationships. (Walters is particularly good on bossy mothers.)

The Chameleon's Shadow is a remarkable, almost hypnotic, book which pulls off the incredible trick of making the reader care for disturbed and on the surface highly dislikeable people. To do that takes rare skill.

Ian Rankin's detective hero Inspector Rebus has always spent an inordinate amount of time considering his record collection or reorganising his CD play list. Successful writers may well have time enough for such indulgences, but working policeman rarely have.

In Exit Music (Orion, 18.99) however, such foibles should be forgiven for this is "Rebus: the last ten days" as the dour Edinburgh cop who smokes and drinks far too much, faces up to looming retirement. Rebus, of course, cannot go quietly and as usual shoulder-charges his way into a double murder investigation and a near-fatal assault on his arch enemy, the gangster Big Ger Cafferty, for which he himself is firmly in the frame.

Rankin has assembled a brilliant cast of minor characters here, from policemen and investment bankers to drug dealers and visiting Russian oligarchs not to mention the city of Edinburgh (and the Scottish parliament) itself. But the focus is always on Rebus as he faces the end of his police career.

After a remarkably restrained retirement party in the legendary Oxford Bar, it is left to Rebus to tie up all the loose ends and to face his old adversary Cafferty in deliciously ironic cliff-hanging ending.

Good comedy thrillers with outrageous comic detectives are few and far between, often relegated to a forgotten cul-de-sac in the labyrinth of crime writing. It is therefore a pure pleasure to welcome back the eccentric Baroness "Jack" Troutbeck, that most unsubtle of sleuths in Ruth Dudley Edwards' Murdering Americans (Poisoned Pen Press, 15.99).

Part academic, part politician but always wonderfully politically incorrect, Lady Troutbeck barges in to situations like a bison at an Ikea sale, in this case a prim mid-western American university where the students are revolting. Or they will be, if Lady Jack has her way!

Mike Ripley is the author of the 'Angel' series and writes a regular column for the Birmingham Post.

last updated 28/10/2007 10:53