A Simple Act of Violence

Washington, embroiled in the mid-term elections, did not want to hear about serial killings.

But when the newspapers reported a fourth murder, when they gave the killer a name and details of his horrendous crimes, there were few people that could ignore it.

Detective Robert Miller is assigned to the case. He and his partner begin the task of correlating and cross-referencing the details of each crime scene. Rapidly things begin to complicate.

The victims do not officially exist. Their personal details do not register on any known systems. The harder Miller works, the less it makes sense. And as Miller unearths ever more disturbing facts, he starts to face truths so far-removed from his own reality that he begins to fear for his life.

This is a novel about trust, loyalty, and beliefs that are so ingrained which, when challenged, they leave people with nothing.

Vast in scope, A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE is an expose of the brutality of covert operations, the power of greed and the insidious nature of corruption. It is also a story of love and trust that somehow managed to survive the very worst that the world could throw at it.


This is a book with everything that a fan of modern mystery fiction could hope for; a labyrinthine plot, unbearable tension, controversy and a social conscience. R J Ellory has come up with a meaty book where he takes a serial killer novel and shapes it into a barbed comment on American foreign policy and a criticism of the God complex of the CIA. That he does this while never dipping on the entertainment value is a compliment to this writer’s consummate skill.

Talking of skill, Ellory’s is never more evident than when he is turning the spotlight of his charged and hugely effective prose onto his bad guys – in this case his sacred monster, Jon Robey. There is one scene where Ellory is writing from Robey’s perspective that almost had me in tears. I’m saying nothing more, but you need to read the book.

For many readers R J Ellory might have just arrived on the scene with the success of A Quiet Belief in Angels, but this stunning book proves that he is definitely here to stay.


 His fifth novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels, was powered into the bestseller lists by Richard and Judy last year, but Ellory's new 600-page blockbuster should need no patronage to take it even greater heights.  This is an awesome achievement – a thriller of such power, scope and accomplishment that fanfares should herald its arrival.  An earlier Ellory novel elegantly mixed a fascinating history of the development of the American Mafia with a sordid tale of kidnapping.  The new book is a gripping account of a serial murder investigation in Washington DC, told in parallel with a history of the most squalid periods in the annals of the CIA – its shocking activities in Nicaragua, financed by the smuggling of tons of cocaine into America.  Detective Robert Miller has four beaten and strangled female corpses, drenched in lavender and with ribbons around their necks, who all seem to have no family, friends, history or real identities.  Were they killed by the ruthless expert CIA assassin John Robey?  Perhaps, but nothing is simple in this extraordinary whistle-blower.
The Guardian
'Dramas gratifyingly evoked by Ellory's perfect portrayal of a city held captive by a serial killer. So skilful is his use of dialogue and the Washington location, in a thriller that propels the reader along and offers shocks and suspense in equal measure, that one never doubts the authenticity of his American credentials… At 500 pages, this is a long, substantial novel. Yet had it been twice as long this reviewer would still have wanted more.'
Waterstones Books Quarterly


'A Simple Act of Violence is an expose of the brutality of covert operations, the power of greed and the insidious nature of corruption. It is also a story of love and trust that somehow managed to survive the very worst that the world could throw at it.'

Deadly Pleasures
'Ellory brings a new psychological and moral tension to the genre, mixing Washington politics with serial killings.'

'A 600-page blockbuster that twists two stories together into a real headache for harrassed homicide detective Robert Miller, and it confirms Ellory's breakthrough book, A Quiet Belief in Angels, was no fluke. 9/10'

Peterborough Evening Telegraph


'A fast-paced and wonderfully constructed plot'

News Letter (N Ireland)
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  women, 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 a 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 while 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.
Material Witness


THIS writer knows how to hook a reader.

The first five pages of his big Washington, DC, novel, A Simple Act of Violence, left me breathless, gasping; not an easy thing to do in a hardened crime reader who believed he had anaesthetised his sensibilities to such things.

R.J. Ellory is the English author of five previous novels, including the captivating bestselling thriller A Quiet Belief in Angels, who despite living in Britain has convincingly set all his books in the US.

In the first short chapter, Ellory forces us to track the progress of a character towards her murder, which takes place to the soundtrack of the classic Frank Capra movie It's a Wonderful Life. It's a virtuoso set-piece opening to a compelling whistleblower of a crime book seemingly based in fact: quite breathtaking in the way Ellory edges the truth into fictional shapeliness to heighten some big moral issues.

Catherine Sheridan, a woman with a passion for odd-coloured berets, takes a DVD from a bookcase, opens the player, pushes buttons and waits for Dimitri Tiomkin's music. She hears the tolling bells and then the playful strings section melody and watches snow falling in a picture postcard street. Then, just as Jimmy Stewart croons, "Well, hello", she dies.

Ellory initially establishes Sheridan as assenting to her demise, even responsible for what happened to her. Possibly a killer herself, she is a self-appointed victim. Her last thought: "I'm not the one who has to go on living with the knowledge of what we did."

Quickly, we become less concerned with the solution to a puzzle than the death of a person, someone who sees the whole of her life collapse like a concertina and then sees it drawn out again until every fragment and fraction can be clearly identified. What was this life like? Who is the "we" she is thinking of as she dies and what did they do together?

Usually in detective fiction what matters is the solution of the mystery and why it happened, but here the prime interest quickly becomes the effect of the crime on the victim.

And only then on the grim young detective, Robert Miller, for once a fictional cop who has no collection of smart one-liners, a man of unremarkable appearance, darkness in his head.

Suddenly Miller and his partner, Albert Roth, are investigating the murders of four women in eight months, Sheridan the latest, apparently the work of a serial killer. (Though maybe not, because copycats seem to be lurking in Washington's shadows, sharp corners and blunt edges.)

An unstoppable sense of inevitability pervades the case. Names don't match social security numbers and the victims have no pasts; police sergeants with fictitious addresses have disappeared; photos are discovered beneath carpets, shreds of newspapers under mattresses.

And, drenched in lavender, each victim has a ribbon tied around her neck, rather like the tag you find suspended from the toe of a body in the morgue.

Miller is a quiet man who has committed himself to a life of asking questions and waiting for answers, who habitually carries an expression as if he is trying to absorb something he can't see. He knows there must be a connection that runs through it all, straight as a ruler. But he's so busy looking at what's around it that he can't see what's in front of him.

Soon, a new voice interrupts the police narrative, a thought process italicised in the text, a hard-bitten, interior monologue that begins just behind the beleaguered investigation, then slyly anticipates it.

The voice speaks of AR 15s, .223s and .22 calibre rounds; of snipers' camouflage suits, hollow point bullets, garrotte wires and how to kill someone with a rolled-up magazine.

And later, as Miller's investigation becomes more confused, the thought stream is about sanctioned assassinations in Reagan-era America, the way the CIA sold drugs in Los Angeles in the 1980s and used the profits in its war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

Ellory then painstakingly and with furtive craft (you keep wondering how he can bring this off) develops three seemingly incongruent scenarios. Seamlessly, he interweaves these serial murders in the Washington of George W.Bush's presidency with the deceitful, Machiavellian horror created in '80s Central America.

And then he intertwines them with a conspiracy orchestrated by clandestine sections of US government agencies. "We live in a fragile state of transparencies," the former agent who might be the Ribbon Killer tells Miller. "Something that appears one way is almost certainly something else."

The detective discovers he is dealing with what the French call a sacred monster, something that the creator regrets having created, something capable of massacring hundreds of innocent people in the name of democracy and flooding the streets of the US with crack cocaine.

"The best-kept secrets are the ones that everyone can see," one of Miller's friends, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, tells him.

Ellory creates a world in which guilt and innocence become problematic, where the presence of the detective simply cannot guarantee the rationality of the world and the integrity of the self, as in conventional detective novels.

Written in simple, unaffected prose that makes you think of the swell and fall of a good sentence as you read, it's unputdownable, an example of what genre critic Jacques Barzun calls "stories of anxiety", which cater for the contemporary wish to feel vaguely disturbed. Ellory plays with the procedural story's conventions, throwing them out of kilter, and keeps the problem of guilt and complicity, of menace and conspiracy at the front of the reader's thinking.

Ellory says he doesn't write crime but human dramas where the characters continually find themselves challenged by viewpoints and realities that are emotionally difficult as well as mentally untenable.

They find themselves in places where they never intended to go and do not wish to remain. Their purpose becomes to recover their lives and identities; failing that, they recover whatever they can but never view life from the same perspective.

Ellory challenges a facade of morality and legality that appears to be so rotten that a disturbing vision lies behind it, and expresses a deep uncertainty about the adequacy of traditional social institutions to meet the needs we have for security and justice.

As Miller thinks to himself at the end of it all, the sacred monster has not yet given up all its secrets.

Graeme Blundell, The Australian


Spy thriller and noir detective tale rolled into one. What first appears the work of a proficient serial killer gets a new dimension when investigation of the victims'  backgrounds reveal they all have false identities. A rogue assassin rediscovers conscience, CIA machinations despoil government and judiciary, and the ghosts of bad ops past in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile et at return to spook the spooks. Cleverly

crafted and saturated with suspense, this one has more coils than an anaconda.

Qantas Magazine


This summer's impressive batch of thrillers takes the global 'War on Terror' as a theme, and each book gives it a very different treatment. In this hefty offering (it's a satisfying 600 pages), British writer R J Ellory melds the crime and thriller genres to page-turning effect. Washington cop Detective Robert Miller is assigned to the case of four seemingly unrelated women murdered by a serial offender dubbed the 'Ribbon

Killer'. To track the culprit down, Miller must try and identify how the victims are related, and what the killer's motivation could be. His investigation leads him to a particularly inglorious episode in American history: the CIA's involvement in Nicaragua in the 1980s, a scenario that could be said to have much in common with the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Weekend Australian


If you like your thrillers complex, mufti-layered and honed to a sharp political edge, A Simple Act of Violence will keep you engrossed. Robert Miller, a Washington detective already under a professional cloud, attends a murder scene to find a woman, beaten and strangled, a ribbon around her neck. It is a replica of other unsolved brutal murders in the US capital. This is the underbelly of political Washington – not the city of gleaming white national monuments, but the town of dangerous tenements and sordid deals in crack-cocaine. Ellory's tale, however, shows how those two worlds intersect in a densely woven narrative that pits the weary but dogged Detective Miller

against a mysterious professor of literature, John Robey. As the latest murder prompts Miller to look again at the earlier, unsolved cases, he comes up with loose ends and discovers none of the dead women can be positively identified, He becomes haunted by the sense that "there was so little he knew and so many people who knew more".

Robey, meanwhile, is musing on "the company" – aka the CIA – an "unprejudiced force for order and stability".  Even as he preaches to his university students the importance of integrity in literature, he recalls his own past as a CIA operative in Nicaragua, and we get clues that reveal the nature of his relationship with the latest murder victim. Catherine Sheridan. Inevitably, Miller and Robey come face to face. And slowly we discover that just as America’s poorest and most vulnerable can become addicted to crack cocaine, so its elite can become addicted to power and manipulation. "There is no question of rightness or wrongness when it comes to the security of a nation," one character observes. Ellory asks us whether we really believe that, or whether we believe in the possibility of decency in an indecent world.



There is something for everyone in A Simple Act of Violence. This crime thriller will delight the palate of lovers of political intrigue in international venues, events that ring of historical truth, bringing the action closer to the realm of real life.

 The New York Times


Ellory is back with an amazing new novel. It’s not only a mystery with enough plot twists to keep the most jaded fan of the genre guessing, it’s also a high-speed car chase of a thriller. This is a superbly entertaining book and one that will endure in the reader’s thoughts long after the last page  turns. After several fine novels, it’s high time R.J. Ellory takes his rightful place on crime fiction’s A-list.

Booklist  (starred review)

Impressive prose and pacing, coupled with a grim, unflinching view of reality that James Ellroy would recognize, make this a must-read for noir fans.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Although R.J. Ellory's A Simple Act of Violence is set in Washington, D.C., just a few years ago, it really concerns the battles of an earlier era. A series of brutal murders draws a homicide detective into a shadow world involving a secret government agency, numerous federal and civic officials, and a scheme to hide acts tied to U.S. involvement in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A police procedural thus shape-shifts into a conspiracy thriller and a historical exposé. . . There are powerful scenes and vivid images in A Simple Act of Violence, which begs comparison with the work of such writers as Charles McCarry and Richard Condon.

The Wall Street Journal


A Simple Act of Violence is a masterful exercise in suspense that keeps unfolding and taking the reader to unexpected places. This one will keep you up late reading, and then you won't sleep.

John Lutz, New York Times bestselling author

I think the first thing to point out about R. J. Ellory is that he is not an unknown name, with a host of novels to his name and as recently as last year, a prestigious award for this very novel, which from the off suggests that we are dealing with something special.

For anyone who has read the Jack Frost novels of R. D. Wingfield, or Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse books, and moving further north Quentin Jardine's, Bob Skinner books, this will be right up your street.

In a genre that has three faces, one of pastiche and one of sincerity and one of misguided morals, Ellory produces a stunning work of crime fiction that takes the story telling back to the roots of the genre with some good old fashioned police work, entwined with the modern popular theme of the serial killer.

Set in Washington DC, the plot is one that is both intricate and simply paced, turning a run of the mill murder into the latest in a pattern of an emerging serial killer. Lead Detective Robert Miller is easily as identifiable a creation as any of the tip of the tongue DIs and DCIs that have graced screens in the last few decades. The development of Miller draws you in as a reader, pulls you into his life with the details that are not necessarily pushed in your face, but are gradually revealed. The classic "show don't tell" ruse that so many writers, including myself, struggle to pull off so well.

The story itself, although linear for the most part, does have its share of flashbacks and interludes, switching effortlessly from third to first person and back again. Again, Ellory has mastered this so well that the occasional disorientation regularly brought about by such alterations to the text never makes an appearance. The plot thunders along at a fair pace for this kind of novel, aided by some relatively short chapters as well as some clever and succinct writing. The building suspense towards the conclusion did make me worry that the ending was not going to live up to what came before, but the fears were completely unfounded as the final pages pulled together the last pieces of the plot to bring the novel to a very satisfying and, I would be willing to say, very much perfect end.

I have not read any of R. J. Ellory's previous works, but I can honestly say that I will be tempted to hunt some of them down when I am looking for some good holiday reading. It is a pleasure, and always a surprise, to come across such a well-rounded novel, which deals with real, excellently developed characters in a real world situation. There are no plot holes, no sections that are unnecessary or just filling out the page count in excess of 400.

To put it simply, A Simple Act Of Violence is a gem of a crime novel that should be up there with the best of them, and it is a book I would urge any lover of the genre to track down, and follow me in moving into the Ellory back catalogue at the first opportunity.


Anthony Lund – Allbooks Review

Noir sensibility invades upscale Washington, D.C., in this standout thriller about a serial killer who targets women during the midterm elections. Ellory seamlessly connects this whodunit with a dirty history of the CIA, crafting a tale that grimly makes the personal political.

The Washington Examiner

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