Peter James is a gentleman of a certain age with a seemingly ever-present twinkle in his eye, the type of twinkle seemingly possessed only by those who love what they do. This is evidenced in part by the quality of his books, all of which are worth reading and re-reading. James, into his fourth decade of storytelling, continues to top his own game with each successive novel, perhaps most strongly with DEAD MAN’S TIME, his latest. It is quite simply a masterpiece that you must read, even if you care not a whit for mysteries, thrillers or police procedurals. A work easily accessible to all, it gently blurs and crosses genre lines.
While a great deal of the attraction of DEAD MAN’S TIME is due to the presence of stalwart Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, it is two of Grace’s opposites in the book that propel it along. We meet the first of these at the beginning of the book, not in Grace’s Brighton, England of 2012 but rather in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922. A young boy named Gavin Daly is roused from sleep by a home invasion, during which his beloved mother is murdered and his father, at whose feet the moon rises and the sun sets, is abducted, never to be seen again. Gavin and his older sister, Aileen, are bundled up by their aunt and board a ship for Ireland, but not before a young messenger approaches Gavin and gives him a package containing his father’s pocket watch and a cryptic note bearing names and numbers.
"Even if you’ve never read anything by Peter James before, you will love every word of this book. As if the exquisite unraveling of its mystery isn’t enough for you, the intersections of Grace’s personal and professional lives would make it worth reading all by itself."
Nine decades later, Aileen is murdered during another home invasion in which millions of dollars worth of antiques are stolen as well. Gavin, approaching the century mark but with the vitality and attitude of a much younger man, is not interested in recovering the majority of the pilfered items; he is singularly focused on retrieving his father’s pocket watch, which is among the stolen booty, and avenging his sister and long-dead father. Though not a criminal in the classic sense, Gavin is a man not to be trifled with, in large part due to a gentleman in his employ known as the Apologist, the second individual who makes the book such a quietly wild and wondrous romp. The Apologist is a dark treasure, one who plays a crucial role here and who accordingly bears close watching.
As for Grace, he has a job to do, which is apprehending Aileen’s killers. It is a tortuous trail that they leave, and Grace and his team slowly but steadily follow a list of suspects, which ranges from a telephone solicitor to a knocker boy (points if you know what that is without looking) to Gavin’s violent, useless son; from Brighton to Spain and then to New York, where Gavin makes a last stand to put paid to promises old and new.
Even if you’ve never read anything by Peter James before, you will love every word of this book. As if the exquisite unraveling of its mystery isn’t enough for you, the intersections of Grace’s personal and professional lives would make it worth reading all by itself. Grace, for being such an unassuming and decent guy, has attracted the malevolent attention of a whole host of folks, two of whom circle quietly around him with bad intent.
You won’t be able to read fast enough as you race to see what happens, and that’s a pity, because James is such a wonderful writer that you really shouldn’t rush things. Which is why, of course, you will want to read DEAD MAN’S TIME twice. And you should.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 8, 2013