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Forty Words for Sorrow

Giles Blunt

A Marion Wood Book, G. Putnam and Sons/Penguin Putnam Inc.

US Hardcover First

Publication Date: June, 2001

ISBN: 0-399-14752-7

344 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: July 8, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray



Mystery, Horror


From its atmospheric opening paragraph to its ethically ambiguous closing ones, 'Forty Words for Sorrow' tells a melancholy, richly textured story with fully realized, complex characters in an isolated and icy setting. While it is a police procedural/serial killer book to be sure, it rises above the predictability of that categorization with exceptional characterization and strong atmosphere.

'Forty Words for Sorrow' is set in Algonquin Bay, an icy, frigid Canadian town near Toronto. What Tony Hillerman does for New Mexico and James Lee Burke does for the Louisiana Bayou, Canadian writer Blunt does for this part of Ontario. The setting, with its biting wind and vast expanses of frozen terrain, strongly and evocatively described, is as much a part of the story as the primary characters.

The story opens with the discovery of the body of 13-year old Katie Pine frozen in a block of ice on the desolate island of Windago outside Algonquin Bay. The disappearance of a teenage boy, the discovery of yet another dead teenager, and the disappearance of a fourth follow Pine's death. What begins as a detailed police procedural involving forensics, footwork and follow-up slowly turns into a classic serial killer story.

John Cardinal, the cop who months earlier investigated Katie's disappearance, is assigned to the homicide investigation, along with a new female partner, Lise Delorme. Delorme, young, attractive, and single, is a high-profile superstar of the Special Investigations unit, where she exposes the white-collar misdeeds of the mayor and local school board. While partnering with Cardinal on her first homicide, Delorme is also secretly assigned to investigate him for tipping off a former drug dealer and counterfeiter to an upcoming police raid. Cardinal suspects he's being investigated and clearly has something to hide. The "I know, you know, I know" dynamic between Cardinal and Delorme provides an unusual and compelling sub-text to the serial killer investigation. The relationship between Cardinal and Delorme grows slowly, naturally and realistically from wariness, distrust and suspicion to respect, teamwork and affection. This is the birth of an engaging detecting duo, who will re-appear in Blunt's next book, 'The Delicate Storm, released in May, 2003.

Fortunately, Blunt's skill as a writer elevates this book above the formulaic. Blunt's characters are wholly believable, his descriptions vivid and evocative, and his pacing superb. We become involved with Cardinal, his daughter and his manic depressive wife, his loneliness, and his guilt well before the killer-on-the-loose stuff kicks in. The first quarter of the book is a finely written story of forensic investigation and solid police-work equal to the best of the police procedural sub-genre. It's only after the characters, the environment and the precinct relationships are firmly established that Blunt introduces the serial killer and his accomplice.

Once mapped, however, the serial killer route takes Blunt into ever more predictable territory -- standard serial killer "can we catch him before he kills again" mode. It's well plotted, well written and suspenseful to be sure. The serial killer is sufficiently creepy and appropriately deranged and his female accomplice is righteously needy, affection starved and easily manipulated. But a serial killer story, by definition, follows a conventional path, one that is nowhere near as original as the environment or characters. 'Forty Words for Sorrow' is best read for its lead characters, its setting and its melancholy atmosphere, and as a promising start of a new police procedural series.