Chief among the many reasons to keep current with Deborah Crombie's excellent mystery series starring Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Inspector Gemma James is to find out how their nontraditional family is faring. Like the late Robert B. Parker's Spenser series in its prime, the Kincaid and James novels combine clever suspense plots with updates on their relationship and the ever-expanding size of their clan.
In No Mark Upon Her, the 14th novel in the series, Duncan and Gemma have just tied the knot. Duncan has brought to the marriage his teenage son, Kit, by a previous relationship; Gemma her 6-year-old son, Toby, by her first husband; and, together, they are in the early stages of adopting almost 3-year-old Charlotte Malik — a happy event that will make their family even more "mixed." Charlotte is part black; all the rest of this crew is the standard British Isles whiter shade of pale. Gemma's old-fashioned parents are having a hard time coming 'round to the thought of a mixed-race granddaughter, but proximity is dissolving their prejudices. See what I mean? The Kincaid and James series offers all the chatty highlights of a holiday card letter without the boring braggadocio.
Of course, there's also always a murder or two, plenty of Scotland Yard office politics, and lots of after-hours unwinding by the fire in English cozy pubs. In No Mark Upon Her, those whiskeys and pub fires are more necessary than ever since Duncan must do a fair amount of squishing through boggy riverside meadows and "tussocky" damp grass. Crombie's latest thriller is set in the town of Henley-on-Thames, where the famous boat races are held. When the novel opens, a young woman named Rebecca Meredith is beginning her after-work row at twilight, a bit later than usual. Here's Crombie's ominous description of how that watery exercise routine begins:
She slipped off her shoes, tossing them to one side of the raft. Then she retrieved her oars, and in one fluid movement she balanced them across the center of the shell while lowering herself into the sliding seat.
The shell rocked precariously as it took her weight. The movement reminded her, as it always did, that she sat backwards on a sliver of carbon fiber narrower than her body, inches above the water, and that only her skill and determination kept her fragile craft from the river's dark grasp.
On this particular outing, even Meredith's skill (she was an Olympic hopeful) won't protect her from the river and the evils that lurk beside it. Duncan is summoned to Henley when Meredith's corpse is discovered snagged underwater near a footbridge, her battered racing scull a short distance away. Her murder rates extra attention since Meredith was not only a serious athlete, but also a fellow detective with the Metropolitan Police Service, aka "the Met." Police gossip has it that Meredith was a bit prickly, a loner, somewhat unpopular. Is it Duncan's imagination or are his superiors pushing him into fingering Meredith's ex-husband as the prime suspect?
No Mark Upon Her is an intricate thriller in which various insular communities collide: the racing elite; the upper echelons of the police bureaucracy; and a K-9 Search and Rescue crew whose members fish dreadful things out of the water and out of each other's psyches. The intrepid dogs of this crew are some of the most brilliant (and affectionate) detectives who've ever bounded through the pages of British detective fiction. And why shouldn't they be? They're equipped, as we readers are told, with world-class schnozzes that can pick up the scent of individual humans who, on average, shed their skin cells "at the rate of about 40,000 a minute." Stop scratching.
While Duncan is sinking into hot water with his superiors and riling the rowers at Henley, Gemma (still, technically, on family leave because of little Charlotte) investigates another area of Meredith's life: Several years earlier, she'd made an accusation of sexual assault against a high-ranking Met officer. If that accusation sealed Meredith's doom, why did the murderer wait so long to exact revenge? And, is Gemma risking her own career by snooping into abuses that the still-macho Met would rather minimize?
Even Duncan and Gemma find themselves gobsmacked by the solution of this murder mystery. Duncan, at least, will have some time at home to mull over everything, since he's scheduled to begin his family leave just as Gemma returns to work. In her next novel, perhaps Crombie will confront the mystery of why even the most well-meaning househusbands don't "see" an overflowing hamper and dirty kitchen floor.