No critic could ever accuse RJ Ellory of lacking ambition. His breakthrough success, A Quiet Belief in Angels, was a genre-busting epic sweeping imperiously from a small town in the south devastated by a serial killer to literary circles in New York.
Given the hundreds of thousands of copies sold following a Richard and Judy endorsement, Ellory must have felt some pressure to follow this up with something equally special, but his legion of new fans will not be disappointed. A Simple Act of Violence is another sophisticated, complex thriller addressing one of the darker moments of recent American history: the CIA's secret war in Nicaragua in the early 1980s.
In this Ellory is the beneficiary of fortuitous timing. As Americans, and indeed the world, ponder the role of their country in what promises to be a landmark election tomorrow, it feels like a good moment to spend some time pondering another chapter in the life of that great nation that divided opinion so thoroughly.
Ellory brings memories of Nicaragua into the present decade with another serial killer investigation, this time in Washington DC where the deaths of four women present the embattled police department with a seemingly unfathomable mystery: how are four apparently with no histories, no place in the vast records of state, linked other than by the modus operandi of a cold-blooded killer.
Charged with discovering the link, under intense pressure from elected officials desperate to present their voting public with a resolution, is Detective Robert Miller. We learn that Miller has returned to active duty following his acquittal for the killing of suspect in murky circumstances some months earlier. Miller is a very modern hero: cynical about the system and those who run it for their own ends, and wounded by his own very public exposure to its sharpest point. He is also something of a workaholic, a lonely man who has developed little life outside his all-consuming job.
But he is driven by a strong determination to seek justice for those no longer able to find it for themselves and by empathy for others who find themselves rejected by mainstream society and trying to exist on its ragged fringes. He is sympathetically, skilfully drawn by Ellory and carries the narrative effortlessly. His increasing exasperation with a series of investigative trails that turn to dust is convincingly realised.
The reader has somewhat more insight than Miller, and his counter-balancing partner Albert Roth, as Ellory mixes the investigation with the memoirs of a man recalling his indoctrination and incorporation into the CIA two decades earlier. This story is compellingly told and one view of the Contra scandal - the one that holds that it was a misguided, evil horror story - is carefully and quite brilliantly brought to life.
As the two stories converge, Miller gradually begins to realise that there is no shortage of people in Washington with no official history, but whose untold stories resonate around the world.
A friend whose judgment I generally concur with in literary matters, told me she thought A Quiet Belief in Angels was "derivative". I can understand where that viewpoint comes from, although I do not agree with it. There is something familiar in elements of this book, glimpses of great conspiracy stories and CIA movies, but I think there is great originality in their presentation, in the way they are woven into a wider tapestry that is able to portray fascinating vignettes of American society and politics whole maintaining a strong and compelling narrative.
For those with the patience to explore a long and detailed novel - which is by no means a staple of a genre which appears to hold that a 330 page whirlwind is the ideal serving for modern readers - A Simple Act of Violence should be very fulfilling indeed.