Robert Miller, "a man of unremarkable appearance" and his partner, Albert Roth, of the Washington, D.C. police department, are on a mission in a week of jam-packed action, while 2006 mid-term elections have the nation's eyes focused on its capital. Ostensibly a tale of the psychological motivation of those who commit murder and those who solve the crimes, there is an undercurrent of counter-intelligence espionage.
Lock the windows, double-bolt doors, and settle in with eerily realistic crime fiction that is the genius of Ellory, in this complex act of violence.
Author R.J. Ellory deftly weaves an intricate backstory that spans 30 years, including facts about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the election of Violetta Chamorro, and Oliver North's involvement. This is a richly researched book flashing back to the Reagan/Bush era and not likely to appear on the GOP must-read list. Readers are introduced to the "sacred monster," the mysterious concept of doing what you think is the right thing, but later discovering is contrary to your nature.
Miller and Roth investigate a crime scene, where Catherine Sheridan "had been beaten mercilessly, relentlessly, in a manner so unforgiving it would have been impossible to survive." Miller immediately identifies a satin ribbon around the victim's neck as a link to recent infamous serial homicides inflicted by someone the media had sensationalized as "the Ribbon Killer." He is baffled by a suspect's statement: "You are asking about the what and the when, detective, not the why. [T]he motive was the important thing, the rationale behind this." Readers are fed morsels about the murderer's psychological profile, until a banquet is served near the end, where everything "comes together like jigsaw pieces."
Thickening the mix is unwed Natasha Joyce, "black, late twenties," who against all odds in impoverished projects has made a good life for her daughter, "a pretty nine-year-old named Chloe." Chloe's father, Darryl King, had been killed in a drug raid shortly after 9/11. Investigating the Sheridan homicide, Miller deduces that a phone number is a code for the date of King's death, which leads him to Natasha. Natasha instigates her own investigation, trying to prove for Chloe that her father had helped police. Fatal mistake. Natasha is brutally murdered in copycat fashion, sans the satin ribbon.
Dual protagonists, cop and killer: Miller, a D.C. detective, and John Robey. Only Robey isn't whom we're led to believe, so a spoiler alert isn't needed. Robey is a messenger of death. "He does not assume importance, and yet he knows he is important." Early on, it appears that Robey is the serial killer. Captain Lassiter crudely asks, "Why the [bleep] does that name ring a bell?" Detective Roth replies, "To Catch A Thief. The Cary Grant film. His character is named John Robie...same name, different spelling." Robey quotes Kafka: "A cage went in search of a bird," an eerie image of Miller in search of the perp.
This thriller concerns serial homicides. It is about a "sacred monster" that plagues each of us. For Miller, it is crossing the line of evidence ethics. He peals back putrid onion skins of federal covert operations discovered during the homicide investigation. Normal is not "the world within which Robert Miller existed. It was not ‘NYPD Blue' or ‘Law and Order.' It did not begin and end within an episode."
Miller opens a Pandora's can of worms when he steps on the toes of the federal intelligence community. The FBI --- more accurately, a person allegedly with the FBI --- jurisdictionally trumps Miller, pulling him off the homicide case. "The Robey case had been spirited away." The FBI leans on Miller like italics. A sticky wicket, everything goes "full circle back to Nicaragua."
Adding "balance" and purpose to Miller's life is Holocaust survivor Harriet Shamir, who encourages him to speak up for what is right, regardless of the personal toll. Harriet "understood more of what he was doing than anyone." She tells of a preacher who said nothing when Jews, intellectuals, scholars and artists were taken to concentration camps. Then "they finally come to get him, and because there's no-one left then there's no-one to speak out for him."
R.J. Ellory is the Stephen King of crime fiction. More simply, the king of crime fiction. The monarchy lives on, with or without William and Kate. Lock the windows, double-bolt doors, and settle in with eerily realistic crime fiction that is the genius of Ellory, in this complex act of violence. A thrilling dénouement leaves readers with unsettling knowledge that the "sacred monster" lives on in A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE, which earned the coveted Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year Award.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on June 9, 2011