If you’re going to write great cop fiction, you need two things: great cops and great villains. Richard Montanari has both in his Philadelphia police series and his latest installment, Badlands, delivers an exceptionally creepy villain. This particular killer leads detectives on a scavenger hunt around Philadelphia, leaving clues and bodies for them to find. A dead runaway in a dry, abandoned basement, inexplicably dead of drowning. An old refrigerator in a vacant lot with a grisly surprise. A strange name spelled out in Scrabble tiles at the scene of a suicide. A bible with curious markings. An ancient Chinese tangram puzzle. Video clues on a goth website. The killer’s own Masterpiece Theater.
For great cop fiction, you also need great cops. Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano are great characters — gritty street cops with no romantic involvement (thank heavens) and complicated personal lives who make a really effective team. They have been through a lot together in previous books. They care about each other, but there is still some distance between them; if you’re going to work that closely, you need to be very cautious about each other’s personal space. They have their secrets, but there is a lot they share.
And on the topic of great cops, this series has one of my very favorite characters: Joshua Bontrager, Philadelphia’s only Amish homicide detective. It could really be played for laughs — and there were quite a few when he was first introduced — but after the initial amusement wore off, he earned the respect of his fellow detectives. He has real strengths that have come from his unusual background and he puts them to good use. He is an odd and refreshing presence in the Roundhouse.
Montanari’s villians are always big and dramatic, staging crimes that are more like events. We get a look at the crimes through the murderer’s eyes, learning the background story in flashbacks, woven in and around the detectives and their investigation. The tortured histories are revealed as the story builds to a final confrontation. It’s a format that has worked well in the three previous novels, The Rosary Girls, The Skin Gods, and Merciless.
My one great disappointment in the books is that they are not set in Cleveland; Montanari is a local boy, but sadly the Cleveland Police Department was not inclined to cooperate when he wanted to set a crime novel in their backyard. I’ve heard him tell the story of how, after being turned away in Cleveland, he was welcomed in Philadelphia, and has made great friends with the officers and detectives there. A missed opportunity, in my opinion, but I don’t know if the Cleveland PD feels the same way.
There’s also something special about reading a book when you’ve met the author. I love book signings — mainly because I love hearing authors talk about their work – and I have met a few authors that way, but I actually met Richard Montanari at a book club meeting. It was my first time attending the Mystery Book Club at Jospeh Beth Booksellers, and I was torn between the book club and another signing going on. The urge to talk about The Rosary Girls won out and I found myself in their coffee shop, seated on a sofa next to a handsome fellow…who turned out to be the author. I must say that it’s great fun to have the author on hand for questions and discussion.
For more on on Richard Montanari and his work, check out his website, RichardMontanari.com.