“At First Light,” by Barbara Nickless (Thomas & Mercer)
Colorado author Barbara Nickless established herself as a first-rate mystery writer with her Sydney Rose Parnell series about a train detective, set in and around Denver.
Now she’s started a second series, this one about a Chicago police detective. Local fans may have second thoughts about Nickless leaving Parnell and Colorado behind. Nonetheless, they won’t be disappointed with her new sleuth in “At First Light,” tough Chicago detective Adrianne “Addie” Bisset.
Bisset is called in when police discover a body on the grimy banks of the Calumet River. This isn’t your garden-variety killing. The victim is laid out in a ritualistic style. His legs are impaled with wooden stakes, and carved bones radiate from his head. Even more ominous, he was bashed in the head, his throat cut, and there is a noose around his neck. Any of the three could have caused his death.
Puzzled by the theatrics of the crime scene, Bisset turns to her best friend, semiotician Dr. Evan Wilding. (A semiotician, Nickless explains, is somebody who studies signs and rituals left by a killer.) The scientist also is a person with dwarfism, and he’s known as the Sparrow.
Because of the rope around the victim’s neck, Bisset wonders if the killing is an act of racism. But Wilding immediately recognizes the carvings on the bones as runes from the Viking age. They represent retribution and human sacrifice. When Bisset discovers a previous murder victim, discovered weeks before, was found laid out in similar fashion, she knows she is after a ritualistic killer, and one who may be too smart to be captured.
The rune carvings turn out to be ancient letters that must be translated into Latin, then old English, then modern English. Some lines are written backwards, which makes translation even more difficult. While Wilding makes out references to Beowulf and bogs and sacrifice, he finds the lines nonsensical. Still, they hint that both Bisset and the Sparrow are two of five persons the killer means to murder.
Wilding is sure he is in danger when a police detective discovers a ring with runes on it in a park where the professor works out with his rare hawk, Ginny. That suggests the killer is watching him. No surprise then when his house catches fire and he barely escapes the killer.
Wilding is as interesting a character as Bisset. Handsome, urbane and witty, he is secretly in love with Bisset. He believes that as a person with dwarfism, he has no chance with Bisset, who goes for tall, Nordic, athletic types. Not all women consider him unattractive, however. Christina, a professor of Germanic studies called in to help solve the mystery of the runes, finds Wilding intriguing enough to flirt with him.
And there is Diana, Wilding’s associate, an Amazonian woman who is an expert in — no kidding — axe throwing. Her only rival in the sport is a Raven, a fearsome man who’s immersed himself in the cliche that Viking men were big and blond and ruthless with battle axes. Raven becomes the primary suspect.
Then, of course, there is the sexist lieutenant who oversees the investigation and brings in Wilding’s rival, Ralph Rinehart, a pop-culture scumbag. He insists the killing is the work of neo-Nazis.
The author herself is something of an expert on Medieval runes and Viking lore. So the book often becomes a primer on Viking history. For example, the word “Viking,” derived from Old Norse, means “bay people.” That explains why the two victims were found near water. Bay people could be cruel and vengeful, but no more so than this killer being tracked by Bisset.
I admit to missing Sydney Rose Parnell and the Colorado setting. Still, Addie Bisset is a worthy successor, and a strong addition to a growing list of female sleuths. “At First Light” is a winner.
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