Here’s a look at “The Knowledge,” the latest in Martha Grimes’ terrific detective series, and David Downing’s “The Dark Clouds Shining,” the final book in his brilliant quartet about a civilian who sometimes works for the British Secret Intelligence Service.
Two exclusive London establishments anchor “The Knowledge” (Atlantic, 368 pp., $26), the latest in Martha Grimes’ terrific series about Detective Superintendent Richard Jury.
One is a high-end casino/art gallery. The other is a pub solely for operators of London’s famous black cabs. Drivers are sworn to secrecy about the location and even existence of “The Knowledge” (named for the mind-bendingly difficult test about city streets that they must memorize).
Linking these establishments is a very public double murder outside the swank club. Coolly flagging a cab, the killer zigzags all over London before flying off to Kenya.
Jury’s investigation relies on three informal groups: the cabbies’ information-sharing network, the street kids who supply them with tips (a modern version of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars) and Jury’s collection of eccentric friends.
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One kid, a startlingly resourceful 10-year-old girl, manages (somewhat improbably) to steal an airplane ticket, befriend the killer and trail him to Africa. What ensues is an absorbing story involving gem smuggling, gambling in London and Reno, Nevada, and a genuinely surprising conclusion.
David Downing’s “The Dark Clouds Shining” (Soho, 384 pp., $26.95, available April 10) is the final book in Downing’s brilliant quartet about Jack McColl, a civilian who sometimes works for the British Secret Intelligence Service (now MI6) in the decades bracketing World War I.
McColl is well suited to espionage: He’s brave, quick-witted and blessed with a knack for languages. But he’s also skeptical about the empire he’s helping preserve, an irony that lends depth to an already nuanced character.
It’s 1921. McColl has run afoul of the cops and faces imprisonment, but the head of SIS — the (real-life) Mansfield Cumming — offers an out: no jail time if McColl travels to the nascent Soviet Union and the turmoil of Communist insurgencies there and elsewhere.
McColl’s task: Discover why MI5, SIS’s sometime rival spy service, is refusing to provide information about a deal it has made with a group of Indian revolutionaries.
The job brings McColl back in contact with the great love he thought was lost to him: Caitlin Hanley, an Irish-American journalist. Now fully committed to the revolutionary cause, Hanley discovers she reciprocates McColl’s feelings despite the fact that she is now married.
As in earlier books, the book drags a bit whenever a character starts speechifying about revolution and social causes. But such brief bits aren’t enough to seriously mar this consistently intelligent and exhilarating story.