R.J. Ellory pips Mark Billingham to the post of better crime read, with A Dark and Broken Heart.RUSH OF BLOODBy Mark BillinghamLittle, Brown, $29.99
Nanjing Night Net

A DARK AND BROKEN HEARTBy R.J. ElloryOrion, $29.99

IT BEGINS with a beating, escalates to armed robbery, climaxes in a massacre and then we get to page 24. British crime writer R.J. Ellory has never been one to shy away from fast and furious violence. If that sounds like too much excitement too soon, rest assured that once he has your attention, Ellory slows the pace to work through the moral consequences of these acts and their implications for the man responsible, Vincent Madigan.

Vincent is a typical Ellory hero, the contradictory man whom we have met before in a series of remarkable stand-alone novels set in various locations and epochs in the kind of US where people live lives of mostly quiet desperation.

”Things happen,” Vincent tells us. ”Most of them bad.” Despite his resignation, there comes a moment when Vincent wants to make them turn out right. Ellory’s skill as a writer is to make us want this too, even when we know Vincent to be the cause of so many of those bad things in the first place.

This is what Ellory does so well: humanising the face of violence, taking us into the centre of the maelstrom where there is stillness and a kind of understanding. As usual, this process is cathartic and moving. Page 24 is also the location of a major revelation that curtails further analysis or commentary. This may be a reviewer-proof book. Just read it.

Fellow Brit Mark Billingham also begins in the US, in Florida at the Pelican Palms Motel, which offers ”paradise on a budget” to sun-starved tourists.

Three British couples – Barry the builder and the overweight Angie, mixed-race Marina and the computer nerd Dave, would-be lothario Ed and long-suffering wife Sue – meet up on their sun-seeker holiday and are all present when an intellectually disabled teenager disappears. Back in Blighty, they exchange emails and meet for the first of three dinners that punctuate the book: ”I do a mean bread and butter pud!” Angie promises in her invitation to the first.

The staging of these dinners is nicely done. What each couple chooses to cook and how their homes are organised and presented constitute an effective study in British manners, suburban aspiration and inevitable frustration.

Angie wants to cook something ”Floridian” and almost chooses the organic chicken, opting instead for the cheaper version. Barry thinks it all sounds too ”poncey” anyway and is embarrassed by her desire to impress these former ”best friends for six days”, including the elegant Sue, the kind of woman who puts a lot of effort into looking as if she made no effort whatsoever. Angie has even had table mats made featuring a holiday snap of them all on their last day in ”paradise”.

Needless to say, the topic of conversation returns to the missing girl. After her badly decayed body is found in a mangrove-choked inlet and another girl of similar age and handicap vanishes in England, trainee Detective Constable Quinlan pays each of the couples a visit before reporting back to the senior officer on the case in Florida. While necessary to the plot, these procedural sections receive short shrift and don’t go anywhere useful.

The creator of Inspector Tom Thorne, most recently translated to television as actor David Morrissey, Mark Billingham’s usual beat is the police procedural with detective hero. Rush of Blood is his first stand-alone thriller and not altogether successful.

Part of the problem has to do with voice and point of view. There are simply too many perspectives (including that of the killer). The main drawback has to do with affect, since there is not one character about whom we might care. Billingham’s characters are closely observed, mercilessly dissected, but there is no emotional hook pulling us through to the final revelation.

And that’s where Ellory has the edge. Even though his hero is a ”bad man”, it’s impossible not to care what happens to Vincent Madigan.

While Billingham may have written a clever crime novel, it is Ellory who has written a great one.

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