Solid Suspense

Tucsonan Elizabeth Gunn succeeds thanks to a compelling protagonist and a steady narrative

Elizabeth Gunn's novels are referred to as "police procedurals," and that's precisely what they are: overviews of officers solving a crime. Routine stuff, sure, but in McCafferty's Nine, a snappy, slender mystery, Gunn once again demonstrates her mastery of the genre, and the particular blend of suspense, wit and sensitivity that's carried her and Det. Jake Hines through seven books.

In this installment, Hines finds himself at what should be a happy junction: His wife, Trudy, is about to give birth to their first child. But Jake, who was an orphan himself, can't help but feel a sense of foreboding as his wife grows larger and larger--an anxiety that's only augmented by an ominous string of crimes in his southeastern Minnesota precinct.

He and his crew find themselves up against a deceptively simple target: A young man in jogging gear has been running up behind women and snatching their purses. The first few are simple robberies, but when one victim ends up hospitalized after "the jogger" roughly knocks her down, the police decide to try a sting. While Jake is in a different part of town making some extra money as a security guard, the sting team catches the jogger when he takes down one of their own. But just as the sting yields an arrest, Jake comes across a small crowd surrounding the dead body of a young woman. Her head is covered in blood, but there's none on the street, and no suspects in the vicinity. As the cold Minnesota snow begins to fall, Jake joins the body in the ambulance, wondering whether the jogger could have committed two crimes at once.

The victim is identified as Geraldine Lovejoy, a plain, local girl who worked as a legal assistant. As Jake and his team interview her family and friends, they find that she was considered guileless and wonderful by some, grasping and overly ambitious by others. But one sentiment seems to resound throughout their investigation: She and her boyfriend, Curtis Brill, were just not right for each other. Brill, alternately awash in tears at Geraldine's demise and annoyed at the police investigation, turns out to be a straight-arrow evangelical, a reverend in training who sees only right in all his actions. Jake and his team can't tell whether Brill's as innocent as they come, or is a hardened criminal who's perfected his glossy alter ego. In the meantime, they continue to wonder about the jogger they caught in the sting, the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Jason Wells, who boasts a clean record and an innocent demeanor, but occasionally unfurls into rage.

As the investigation advances, more characters intertwine themselves in the investigation, and Jake, already at odds with his nerves as Trudy's due date approaches, finds himself increasingly unsettled. It is only when duty summons him to the dangerous core of the tangled crime that he finds reprieve.

Those who like their books stuffed with advanced forensics and around-the-world escapades might feel a little bored reading about the relatively slow criminal landscape of southeastern Minnesota (where Gunn lived before moving to her current home in Tucson). Still, with its dreary snowscapes and remote farms--prime lurking spots for villains--the St. Paul area becomes a looming, even menacing figure in its own right.

Jake's troubles and concerns are the landmarks of the book's terrain, but thankfully, McCafferty's Nine is hardly dominated by angst. At times, Jake is merely annoyed at doing paperwork or at his flustered chief, who spends the majority of the text preparing for a reunion of his former football team. At moments like these, when Chief McCafferty is lamenting his portliness, or when the gruff Buzz complains about Curtis crying again, or when the ebullient detective Rosie seduces the stoic officer Bo, Gunn reveals a flair for humor that even the most hard-line of mystery fans will appreciate. Gunn inserts these sideshows with an expert's mastery of scene and an artist's eye for detail. But her subplots and diversions never come at the expense of the main narrative, which spins along, gathering strength like a hurricane as it moves.

But most importantly, Gunn does an excellent job of making us care about this hard-working, slightly obsessive cop, mostly by using his personal life to reveal his softer side, and also by demonstrating--especially in the book's final, frantic moments when his world is on the verge of total ruin--how the cop and the man are a better unit together.

The very best of mystery novelists venture beyond the gruff detective and his criminal nemeses to deliver genre-busting narratives. Gunn does not test the boundaries of mystery. But as anyone who'd happily take their threadbare armchair over a new leather recliner will appreciate, McCafferty's Nine doesn't let the faithful down.

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