If you are unfamiliar with Peter James’s books, particularly what is known in some circles as the Dead series starring Roy Grace, do yourself a favor and read his latest novel. This fine set of police procedurals is just beginning to acquire the recognition it has long deserved, and NOT DEAD YET is a great place to start, featuring the sharp characterization, surprises and dark humor that have constituted the hallmarks of James’ writing from the first installment.
NOT DEAD YET finds the superlatively competent Grace --- or, as he takes pains to inform the uneducated, Detective Superintendent Grace --- swamped with work. At home, he is awaiting the arrival of his newborn with his (fortunately understanding) significant other, while his job is proving to be an ever-demanding and jealous mistress. He must deal with his testimony at the trial of a major pornographer and the grisly discovery of a human torso in the waste pit of a chicken farm. Those of us who don’t know what goes on in getting that chicken nugget we love so dearly from conception to the drive-thru will not soon forget this particular vignette wherein the mutilated victim is discovered.
"This fine set of police procedurals is just beginning to acquire the recognition it has long deserved, and NOT DEAD YET is a great place to start, featuring the sharp characterization, surprises and dark humor that have constituted the hallmarks of James’ writing from the first installment."
It is this mystery that puts the “procedural” in this “police procedural,” and there are very few who even come close to doing it as well as James does here, as he gives his readers an in-room view of Grace and his team, each of whom brings a certain skill or strength to the puzzle. First, there is the tedious, seemingly impossible task of identifying the victim --- a head would help --- and second, establishing the “why” and “who” behind the killing. A link is discovered here, a thread there (literally), and with a bit of luck and the aid of those ever-present security cameras, a suspect is identified. Maybe.
Meanwhile, Grace is tasked with riding herd on the security for Gaia Lafayette, a British expatriate who sought fame and fortune in the United States and found it as one of the world’s biggest pop stars. She is returning to her native England to star in a feature film, which seems doomed from conception but has the fortunes and careers of several principals riding upon it. Unfortunately, Gaia has some over-exuberant fans, and the film’s producer believes that she may be in danger. As the reader quickly learns, such fears are well-founded, as one particularly obsessed admirer reacts to an apparent snub with an elaborate plan of confrontation, even as another individual, with an axe to grind and nothing to lose, is determined to destroy the entire movie project and all who are involved with it. Grace makes every effort to prepare, investigate and protect, doing all three tasks admirably, unaware that he is under surveillance by his wife Sandy.
After having gone missing more than 10 years before, Sandy is back, watching and waiting, as has been hinted here and there over the course of the two Grace novels. I won’t spoil the suspense for you, other than to say that she is…not right. Not at all. While the book is complete in and of itself, James leaves a number of beginnings dangling in the last paragraphs, which will entangle readers anticipating the next installment.
NOT DEAD YET is the eighth novel in the Grace series, but is by no means the last one. James, who is incapable of writing badly, just seems to be getting warmed up. This book and author both deserve to be on your must-read list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2013