(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky NOV 15, 2007)
Here is a familiar idea for a novel: One or more long-buried bodies are suddenly uncovered. An investigation ensues, and old secrets are gradually revealed that will change people's lives forever. Peter Robinson, Val McDermid, and other popular writers have used this story line for years with great success. In Spider Trap, Barry Maitland, a Scottish-born writer who lives in Australia, takes this generic, all-purpose premise and uses it to create a compelling tale of how the past and the present often converge with explosive results.
Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla of Scotland Yard are superbly drawn protagonists who are caught up in an ugly situation that becomes ever more horrifying as time goes by. First, two sixteen-year-old girls, Dana and Dee-Ann, are found beaten and shot through the head in a place called Cockpit Lane. The press assumes that the West Indian girls, who were well-known thieves, carjackers, and addicts, may have run afoul of some unforgiving Jamaican drug dealers. Next, a schoolboy poking around in a rail yard comes across a human jawbone. After further excavation, the police uncover the remains of three men who were tortured and executed at this site over twenty years ago. Senior Investigating Officer DCI Brock, along with Kolla, Detective Inspector Bren Gurney, forensic pathologist Dr. Sundeep Mehta, and others, team up to discover the men's identities and try to find the person or persons who killed them. Shockingly, the policemen later discover that there is a connection between the two homicide cases, even though they occurred decades apart.
As Brock tracks down witnesses, he comes across a name that makes his blood run cold: Spider Roach, "one of the most vicious and most successful crooks in South London." Spider, who is now in his seventies and ailing, was involved in fraud, arson, extortion, drug-dealing, and murder over his long criminal career. He was a ruthless predator who intimidated terrified witness and threatened to kill their families if they testified against him. His strong-arm tactics enabled him and his three malevolent sons, Mark, Ivor, and Ricky, to stay out of jail, much to Brock's chagrin. Brock ruefully tells Kathy, "Spider Roach was my big failure, Kathy." Nowadays, the Roaches own legitimate businesses and appear to have gone straight. Have they truly reformed or are they hiding their nefarious activities behind a veil of legitimacy?
Barry Maitland has created a vivid cast of characters who play out their respective dramas against the backdrop of a violent and racially-charged landscape. Brock is a lonely man who is estranged from the woman he loves, and he buries himself in his work to escape his solitary existence. Kathy has not had a meaningful relationship in years and she is on her guard when Detective Inspector Tom Reeves, an undercover cop from Special Branch, reenters her life, claiming that he wants to reconnect with her. Reeves helps Brock and Kolla gather evidence that may at long last place Spider Roach and his evil family behind bars. Teddy Vexx is a cocky hoodlum who has killed more than once with impunity; his clever and slimy lawyer finds loopholes that enable his client to remain free. Michael Grant is a Member of Parliament who was born in Jamaica in abject poverty and worked his way up to earn a prestigious position in London politics. He is an activist who goads the police to clean up London's slums and put a stop to the "evil alliance of poverty, drugs, guns, and criminal business interests operating in the district." Winnie Wellington and Abigail Lavender are two kindly women who have welcomed Jamaican boys into their homes, trying to steer them on the right path with the help of compassionate local priest, Father Maguire. As the ever more complicated events unfold, Grant, the Roach family, and the detectives are headed for an inevitable confrontation. Startling revelations and violent deaths punctuate this suspenseful and richly textured novel, which has a shocking and unsettling conclusion that proves just how elusive the truth can be.
Maitland is not content merely to write an engrossing mystery, although he has certainly done that. He creates a richly detailed picture of socially and economically disadvantaged black immigrants being preyed upon by an entrenched white criminal syndicate; of power-hungry politicians stabbing one another in the back to achieve their dubious aims; of men who abuse their wives and rely on a code of silence to keep their activities hidden; and of people whose skeletons emerge from their closets at the most inopportune times.
Laying a trap for Spider and his clan may cost the detectives their careers, their reputations, and even their lives. It is to Brock's and Kolla's credit that they are willing to risk so much and work so hard to see that justice is finally done. This is a riveting, intricate, and textured psychological thriller that demonstrates how the choices that we make help determine the paths that our lives ultimately take, for good or ill. Spider Trap is beautifully written, skillfully constructed, and highly recommended for fans of literate British police procedurals.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky NOV 16, 2006)
Barry Maitland's No Trace is a haunting and powerful police procedural featuring Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla. Brock and Kolla are members of a Major Enquiry Team looking into the disappearance of three young girls: Aimee Prentice, Lee Hammond, and most recently, Tracey Rudd, the six-year-old daughter of Gabriel Rudd, a controversial contemporary artist. Rudd lives in Northcote Square, a London neighborhood known for its cutting-edge artists and art dealers.
Maitland does a masterful job of juggling an enormous cast of colorful characters. Betty Zielinski is an apparently disturbed woman who lives near Gabriel Rudd. Although she claims that she has pertinent information that could help the police, no one is willing to pay any heed to "Batty Betty," as she is known in the square. Len and Bev Nolan, Tracey's grandparents, despise Rudd, whom they blame for the suicide of his wife, Jane, who was also their daughter. Fergus Tait, Gabe's art dealer, is an opportunist who encourages Gabe to immediately transform his grief into a new work of art, as he did after his wife's death.
Weeks pass without any leads. Suddenly, a series of homicides raises the stakes for the investigators. It soon becomes apparent that a serial killer is loose in Northcote Square. Could these murders be related to the abduction of the three little girls? Brock has his hands full dealing with these high-profile cases, especially since his superiors are breathing down his neck and pressuring him for results. Maitland slowly builds up tension as Brock, Kathy, Detective Inspector Bren Gurney, and the rest of the team desperately look for leads.
No Trace is one of the most dark and complex thrillers of the year. It has crisp dialogue, sharp descriptive writing, excellent depiction of police procedure, and deliciously sardonic humor. Maitland touches on a number of compelling themes and develops them beautifully: the selfishness of great artists, the political jockeying for power among law enforcement agencies, and the price that dedicated detectives pay for their devotion to duty. The author skillfully demonstrates that some apparently normal human beings are so cruel and insensitive to the pain and suffering of others that they commit horrific acts with little or no remorse. The plot becomes more and more intricate until it culminates in a breathtakingly clever and surprising, if not entirely realistic, finale. Still, Maitland pulls it off, and No Trace is itself a minor work of art.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
(Reviewed by Chuck Barksdale MAY 28, 2003)
As Babel begins, Scotland Yard's Detective Chief Inspector David Brock ("Brock") investigates a murder of Max Springer a University of Central London East (UCLE) college philosophy professor while Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla ("Kathy") recuperates from her encounters with "Upper" North during the Silvermeadow case, in this fifth book of the police procedural series by Barry Maitland. During her recuperation for both physical and mental abuse, Kathy stays with Brock's romantic friend, Suzanne Chambers.
This story is told in the third person point of view of both Brock and Kathy. Maitland's presentation of Brock's observations of the crime scene are in this excerpt provide clear and memorable images.
"The most striking thing, Brock had thought, when he'd first arrived, was the public nature of the crime. There was no private violence in some dark corner, but a public execution staged before a large audience. The body had lain sprawled theatrically halfway down a monumental flight of steps, the image like a still from The Battleship Potemkin, with a trail of blood leading up the flight, and clumps of students and police standing in immobilized groups beneath the glare of lights. He turned from his conversation with Bren to look away to his left across the curve of the Thames, towards the Millennium Dome glowing huge in the winter twilight, and at that moment a press cameraman caught him in his flash. They were practically on the newspapers' doorstep here, and the reporters had arrived quickly, attracted perhaps by this public nature of the death. He gave them a few non-committal comments, then told the uniforms to move the cordon further back."
At first, Brock works just with newly promoted Detective Inspector Bren Gurney to uncover the possible suspects in the murder. The University President Roderick Young is not overly helpful and appears protective of the University and the large presence of students from Middle Eastern countries. Despite these efforts, rumors spread that suspects in the murder of the professor appear to be possibly Islamic extremists.The investigators do suspect Abu Khadra, a Lebanese student that also works at the Centre of Advanced Biotechnology (CAB-tech), a university related research group (funded by many Middle Eastern countries). CAB-tech was a target of Professor Springer's because of the genetic research they did that he found objectionable. When the investigators bring in Khadra for questioning, they are attacked and Khadra is killed by a mob of Neo-nazis before they can bring Khadra to safety.
As the investigations go on, Kathy is almost certain she does not want to be involved and is not certain she wants to continue working for Scotland Yard. She even applies for a job working for a travel agency. However, as a result of a call from Clare Hancock, a persistent news reporter who calls Kathy to tell her of a possible new angle on the investigation, Kathy is brought into the investigations. When Kathy goes to Brock to tell him of the reporter's possible key information, Brock takes advantage of the situation and slowly gets Kathy involved in the case, both to help the investigation and for Kathy's own good as well.
Kathy and Brock eventually work together to solve this complicated murder. A few twists and dead ends are found along the way, but Brock is the major contributor in this book in uncovering the surprising how and why the murder occurred.
Maitland cautions the reader at the beginning of the book that he wrote the story prior to the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 and the potential terrorist threats in the book are not a reflection of those events, but the already present tensions. Nonetheless, this book definitely works in a post-9/11 world and the tensions between the Middle Eastern Muslims (referred to as Southern Asian in the book I guess since it includes people from Pakistan and India as well as Lebanon and Iraq) and British is an interesting backdrop to this story. Many of the Asians and their ancestors have lived and worked in London longer than the British investigators and this humanization of these key minor characters is fascinating. (The Iraqis are really not humanized too much as the two present in the book are thugs.)
This was the second book in this series that I have read, and as with Silvermeadow, I did not find any significant problems in not having read the previous books in the series. Although I was familiar with the ordeal that Kathy had gone through in the previous book, this was not critical to understanding the key storylines. However, as with Silvermeadow, knowing more about the personal history of the characters is beneficial to getting the full experience of this book. This is true of any continuing series and something for the faithful readers.
One of my concerns in reading a book set in England and written by someone originally from that area is whether or not I could follow the book. (Maitland now lives in Australia.) For the most part, I've avoided books by British authors. (I was never a fan of Dickens or Shakespeare and certainly do not want to read them for pleasure. Great Expectations, admittedly read when I was in 9th grade, is probably the most boring book that I've ever had to read.) I'm also concerned about geographic references I don't know or cultural and language differences that prevent me from following the book. This was definitely not a problem with the two Maitland books I've read and I'll be more likely to read British books in the future.
This is the second book I have read by Barry Maitland, and, as in the first one, I was not disappointed. One thing I'd like to see more in this series is a little more humor to lighten up the continual serious nature of the character and stories. (The use of humor is what makes Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series so good.) I'm looking forward to reading more in this series.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
(Reviewed by Chuck Barksdale MAY 28, 2003)
In this fourth book in the police procedural series by Barry Maitland, Scotland Yard's Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla ("Kathy") and Detective Chief Inspector David Brock ("Brock") investigate two apparently unrelated cases in the huge Silvermeadow shopping mall in Essex in the outskirts of London England. These books are told in the third person from the point of view of both Kathy and Brock.
Brock first gets called to the Silvermeadow mall when a former victim recognizes the voice of Gregory Thomas "Upper" North, an amphetamine-heightened criminal that had not been captured by Brock in a previous violent confrontation. While investigating the apparent sighting of North, Brock finds the local police, led by Detective Sergeant Gavin Lowry investigating a body found at the mall trash compactor area. Maitland provides some background on how the victim, possibly missing teenager Kerri Vlasich, was found, while at the same time giving the reader an excellent view of Brock's first impressions of Lowry.
'They found her down there, sir,' Lowry said, pointing to one corner, around which the figures of scene of crime officers in white nylon overalls were crawling. 'One of the men was loading the waste onto the bank of that truck. The bale split open and she was inside.'
'How long ago was that, Sergeant?' Brock asked, watching the man reach into the inside pocket of his black suit. A sharp dresser, mid-thirties, gel in his hair, after-shave, a smoker. His accent was standard Estuarine, Essex Man, delivered with a cool reserve, anxious to impress, Brock guessed, without showing it.
Brock decides that by helping the local police on the investigation of the murder of Kerri Vlasich, they'll be able to see if North returns to Silvermeadow. Brock has Detective Sergeant Bren Gurney lead the North investigation while he has Kathy work with Lowry on the investigation into Kerri's murder.
Kathy's role in the book is significant as both her investigative approaches and her personal life take the lead. Kathy finds several successful leads through her interpersonal skills in working with Kerri's friends and the "residents" of the mall. Her personal life appears to take a favorable change as she develops a romantic relationship with forensic inspector Leon Desai. Apparently, they had had an unsuccessful prior meeting, but in this scene, things are about to change.
They ran across the rain-swept tarmac and Leon held his umbrella over her as she unlocked the car. As they got in it occurred to Kathy that there is that moment when a couple, getting into a car together on a wet windy night, slamming the doors shut, experience a sudden compression of space, as the world shrinks to the intimate cabin around them. After a few seconds the effect fades, the mind adjusts to the new dimensions, and normal service is resumed. But for that moment they may be caught unawares, their mental-space reference tricked, and their sense of the proximity of the other dramatically heightened. At that moment, she thought, if there is the potential for something to happen, it probably will.
This book realistically presents investigative methods and many dead ends arise as the inspectors follow leads that uncover often unrelated or apparently unrelated outcomes. Although this provides a realistic police procedural, the book does drag at times as dead ends are found, or the process of uncovering successful leads is too realistically slow.
Although this was the first book in the series that I read, I did not find any significant problems in not having read the previous books in the series. Maitland did a good job in providing back up information on the history of the main characters, including the previous encounters with Upper North. I think it would certainly have helped to have read the previous books to understand the relationships between Brock and Kathy and their budding relationships with Suzanne Chambers and Leon Desai, but this was certainly not necessary to follow the story.
This is the first book I have read by Barry Maitland and I was not disappointed. I'm a fan of a good police procedural and this was definitely one.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Kathy & Brock Mysteries
- The Marx Sisters (1994)
- The Malcontenta (1995; August 2000 in US)
- The Chalon Heads (1999; 2001 in US)
- Silvermeadow (2000; August 2002 in US)
- Babel (2002; May 2003 in US)
- The Verge Practice (July 2004)
- No Trace (October 2006)
- Spider Trap (October 2007)
- All My Enemies (September 2008)
- Dark Mirror (September 2009)
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- Official website for Barry Maitland
- Arcade Publishing author pages for Barry Maitland
- The Edge review of All My Enemies
- BooksForABuck.com review of The Chalon Heads
- BooksnBytes.com reviewof Silvermeadow
- Tangled Web review of Babel
- Illiterarty.com review of No Trace
- EuroCrime review of Spider Trap
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About the Author:
Barry Maitland was born in Scotland and raised in London. He now resides in Australia, where he taught architecture at the University of Newcastle until he retired in 2000 to write full-time. His first novel in the series, The Marx Sisters was shortlisted for the John Creasey Award for best first crime novel.