Our critic rounds up the best crime fiction offerings of the year so far
The Nursery by Asia Mackay (Zaffre) ★★★★☆
Asia Mackay’s debut Killing It (2018) featured an assassin working for one of the most secret subsets of British Intelligence and trying to juggle her job with bringing up a two-year-old daughter. Like many good comic ideas, the central joke – that it is more of a strain to be a competent mother than a professional killer – starts off being funny because of its self-evident absurdity, and ends up being funny because the author has convinced us it’s true, and the joke’s on us because our easy assumptions have prevented us from realising it.
Now Mackay’s heroine Lex Tyler returns in a sequel that finds her feeling more strongly than ever that her dangerous day job is a welcome respite from the mundane miseries of motherhood. Like the television series Outnumbered, it provokes winces of pain as much as laughs at remembered parental humiliations.
Mackay manages to portray Lex as both a frazzled mother and an omnicompetent secret agent without any sense of jarring. There’s a strong element of burlesque – one of the villains is an international assassin who is always dressed as a clown and needs to spend most of his time hanging around funfairs and circuses to avert suspicion. But the central plot – which sees Lex and her colleagues pursuing the masterminds behind a sort of Tinder for traitors that introduces would-be moles to people who will pay them for information – is well handled, and there’s everything here you’d want from a straight espionage story: pace, tradecraft, inventive but plausible jargon, violence, hair’s-breadth escapes and weltschmerz.
The prose is breezy and relaxed rather than stylish, and comedy of character and situation predominates over pointed wit, but I laughed a lot. Mackay is a very welcome addition to the ranks of new writers who are freeing espionage fiction from the stranglehold of solemnity.
The Truants by Kate Weinberg (Bloomsbury) ★★★☆☆
Agatha Christie does not receive a great deal of academic attention. The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights does not give a single mention to the most successful British woman playwright of the past 100 years. So it is a measure of the radicalism of the academic who dominates Kate Weinberg’s debut novel that she teaches a course on Christie, the lectures bearing titles such as “Miss Marple’s Revenge – Feminism in the Rose Garden”.
Lorna Clay is a maverick star professor at an unnamed Norfolk university. She is famous for writing a book called The Truants in which she argues that good artists need to be nasty people (“Because what was forged in their destructive fires… was an understanding of the very deepest drives in humanity.”). The novel is narrated by dowdy undergraduate Jess, who falls under Lorna’s spell as they try to unearth the “feminist revolutionary” behind Dame Agatha’s stolid facade. Despite Lorna’s reputation for exploiting the students she befriends, Jess grows closer to her, while also developing a crush on her glamorous best friend’s boyfriend. The novel soon becomes a tangle of love triangles and rectangles that would bewilder a geometrist, until death rends them messily asunder.
Weinberg often writes well (“the propaganda of her beauty”, used in reference to somebody who looks nice but isn’t, is one of many deft, striking phrases) and the parallels between her story’s events and incidents in Christie’s life and books are ingenious. But there isn’t much of Christie’s clarity of characterisation or plotting, and an air of ambiguity designed, perhaps, to suggest the essential unknowability of human beings does not in the end prove an adequate substitute. Still, when Weinberg’s good, she’s very good, and there’s plenty here to indicate that she will write some outstanding novels.
Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer (Macmillan) ★★★☆☆
Jeffrey Archer has spent most of the past decade writing The Clifton Chronicles, a series of novels focused on an author who earns his bread and butter writing detective books about a detective called William Warwick but yearns to write a literary masterpiece. One might have taken this as a hint that, on the brink of his ninth decade, Lord Archer was preparing to write his Finnegans Wake. But, of course, he has not sold 275 million books by being prey to self-indulgent ambitions. Instead, he has now appropriated Harry Clifton's crowd-pleasing character for a new series of novels that will follow William's progress from lowly constable to commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
This first volume sees him refusing to join the graduate fast-track scheme, and learning the realities of life on the beat, before being headhunted to join Scotland Yard's art and antiques squad and tasked with tracking down a Rembrandt nicked from the "Fitzmolean Museum". He is assisted by a comely curator who, since she talks in the same undeviatingly arch manner of every female love interest in every Jeffrey Archer novel ever, inevitably becomes the object of William's adoration.
Rather than end the book with a climactic trial scene as is his custom, Archer ends the book with two climactic trial scenes, cutting between them. Despite this, the novel offers little in the way of suspense, and is best enjoyed as another in Archer's long line of character studies of decent, straight-bat Englishmen, perhaps all the more powerful because they differ in so many aspects from their creator.
The book is an enjoyable account of policing in the days when you had to queue up to use the only computer, replete with authentic-seeming anecdotes; some ropy dialogue and characterisations will not impede readers' swift progress through it.
Take if Back by Kia Abdullah (HQ) ★★★★☆
Sexual assault is overtaking murder as the fashionable felony in crime fiction. There have been several excellent thrillers in recent years highlighting the ways in which the odds in rape trials are stacked against women, and I've learnt a great deal from them.
But, with a degree of shame, I must admit that they don't always satisfy that part of me that reads crime fiction to play "guess the twist". You know that, however much the story suggests along the way that the female victim is lying, she will be vindicated in the end.
The journalist Kia Abdullah has cunningly boxed herself in with this courtroom thriller in which no politically correct ending is possible. Jodie, a 16-year-old white girl with a genetic condition that has left her horribly deformed, claims to have been the victim of a gang rape carried out by a group of her classmates, all Muslim boys. One of those scenarios the tabloids are always warning us about must be true: either a lonely girl has invented an assault to get attention, or she is the prey of predatory immigrants. Whatever the outcome, the trial will serve to boost those who want to sow discord between Britain's native and immigrant communities.
The story is mostly told from the perspective of Jodie's assault adviser Zara Kaleel, a steely but sometimes flaky Muslim woman who has walked out on both an arranged marriage and a high-flying career as a barrister to help vulnerable people. Abdullah avoids pious stereotypes in her characterisations (apart from the smarmy, posh defence barrister) and writes particularly well about Jodie's difficult relationship with her hope-deprived, working-class mother ("The only thing you could do was surrender and Jodie's resoluteness made her livid. You couldn't stand up to life.") This is a thought-provoking and sparklingly intelligent novel, with the welcome bonus of an unguessable ending.
A Fatal Game by Nicholas Searle (Viking) ★★★★☆
Nicholas Searle's first novel, The Good Liar (2016), was about an octogenarian con man; the film adaptation starring Ian McKellen, with Helen Mirren as his target, will be out in November. It was followed by A Traitor in the Family (2017), in which a British intelligence officer tried to recruit an IRA killer's wife during the last year of the Troubles. One guesses that the second book drew more heavily on Searle's experiences – he has cagily described himself as a "retired civil servant" with "years of experience of counter-terrorist initiatives" – but both novels point to some training in psychological manipulation, and an understanding of the strange power dynamic between manipulator and manipulated.
His frighteningly topical third novel explores similar themes. It begins with intelligence officer Jake Winter in trouble when a terrorist he had apparently turned is involved in a suicide bombing that kills 63 people. While Jake is preoccupied with the inquiry (there is a delicious portrait of the preening QC representing the victims' families), he is also trying to redeem himself by convincing Rashid, a young British Asian man involved in the planning of a further atrocity, to spy for him.
Searle has fun with the office politics of the intelligence world, and is thoughtful about the ethics of espionage, but the novel's triumph is its portrayal of the relationship between Jake and Rashid. Jake's reflections on how you form a bond with someone you are trying to turn have a strikingly lyrical quality; it seems something akin to poetry can be the best medium for expressing the practicalities of the hard-nosed business of espionage.
If John le Carré hadn't pinched it for his next novel, Agent Running in the Field would have made a good title for this one. I suspect even le Carré could learn something about how to write about espionage from reading it.
Call Him Mine by Tim MacGabhann (W&N) ★★★★☆
Anybody writing about Mexico has a duty to convey the sheer scale of violence there, the way in which murder has become an everyday fact of life. Yet doing that risks making individual deaths seem less heinous because homicide is commonplace. One thing novelists can do more effectively than journalists, perhaps, is to remind us that every killing in Mexico ought to seem as shocking an aberration as a murder in the St Mary Mead vicarage.
This is one of the achievements of this debut novel by Tim MacGabhann, an Irish journalist and Mexico resident. It is in many ways obviously a journalist's novel, designed to draw readers' attention to the fact that Mexican cartel gangsters are being paid by US-backed fracking companies to silence environmental protesters. But although this is a country in which "every lamppost on every street wears a peeled lagging of 'Missing' posters'", the novel is not an epic catalogue of depravity in the manner of Don Winslow's Cartel trilogy; instead, it uses just two murders as a focal point for Mexico's grief and rage.
It begins with Andrew, an Irish journalist, and his photographer boyfriend Carlos stumbling on the mutilated body of a young protester. Andrew, who favours a quiet life, does not want to stick his nose in, until Carlos, carrying out his own investigation, is tortured and killed. An afterword reveals that the trouble-dodging Andrew is a self-portrait: "I put myself and my privileges on trial, and the transcript of that trial became Call Him Mine," writes MacGabhann, unappealingly. Fortunately, he gets too caught up in his pacy, exciting plot to indulge in too much self-laceration. The novel is written (sometimes overwritten) lyrically, with an offbeat humour, which helps defamiliarise a situation to which Western readers have become inured, and communicate its horrors afresh.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (Dialogue) ★★★★☆
“What chance did I stand between the Communists on one side and the Establishment on the other?” complains the working-class spy in Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File. The heroine of Lauren Wilkinson’s debut novel would share the sentiment.
Marie Mitchell is a black woman working for the FBI in the mid-Eighties, in a culture of “machismo and knee-jerk conservatism”, getting nowhere while her colleagues tick her off for not smiling enough. When she gets her big break, tasked with getting some intel on Thomas Sankara, the visiting president of Burkina Faso, it’s because she’s been deemed the employee he’s most likely to fancy.
The novel takes the form of a document Marie is writing in the present for her two sons (the first-person narrative occasionally jumps awkwardly into the second-person plural). She looks back over her early life and her reasons for joining the FBI, and forwards to a nasty incident in the Nineties that led to her fleeing from her home with her two small boys after killing an intruder. But the bulk of the book explores her relationship with Sankara in the Eighties and, although for a time she makes Marie’s narrative voice turn uncharacteristically novelettish, Wilkinson paints a convincing and lively portrait of this fascinating real-life figure.
The novel is admirably free of simplistic motivations, although, less subtly, it draws attention to this fact more than once – for example, when Marie, a John le Carré fan, reflects that it’s too neat to say that he was drawn to spying and secrets because his father was a con artist: “people are too complex for such simple arithmetic”. A non-privileged protagonist in this poshest of genres is rare enough to make that the USP, but by any standards this is a fine thriller, thoughtful and drily witty, richly textured and, when required, pacy and very exciting.
The Chain by Adrian McKinty (Orion) ★★★★☆
Crime fiction can allow you to wallow in terrible fantasies without guilt. If, daydreaming while doing the washing-up, I found myself wondering how I would go about the task of kidnapping a random child – whether I’d be capable of hitting her or threatening her with death to keep her quiet – I’d go and find myself a therapist.
But I asked myself these questions without a qualm while I lived vicariously through the ordeal of Rachel Klein, an ordinary Massachusetts single mother whose daughter is abducted. To secure her release, Rachel not only has to pay a ransom but also carry out another kidnapping herself, and pass on the same instructions to the nice people whose lives she’s just ruined – and so on ad infinitum. It’s “the goddam Uber of kidnapping with the clients doing most of the work themselves,” says one of the evil masterminds behind “The Chain”.
The 17 previous novels by McKinty, a Northern Irish writer based in the US, have been deluged with praise from the critics – and to show you what that’s worth, his sales figures are so low that he has recently been working as an Uber driver and contemplating giving up writing. But this new book has secured him a huge advance and a seven-figure film deal.
I missed some of the subtleties and the granular prose of his other works, but there is no doubt that McKinty has the gift of making his readers identify with his luckless protagonist with a rare intensity. The villains behind The Chain become less frightening the more we learn about them, with the result that the denouement didn’t have quite the impact it should, but by then I was so addicted to the novel that even a weaker hit was welcome, and I writhed with the pain of withdrawal when I finished it. The Chain deserves to be the popular hit of the year.
Worst Case Scenario by Helen FitzGerald (Orenda) ★★★★★
I have read many novels in which good people make terrible decisions, but this is the first in which the main character ruins her life not out of misplaced loyalty, pride or desperation but because the menopause has sent her a bit doolally. In her acknowledgements, Helen FitzGerald pays tribute to hormone replacement therapy, “which got me out of bed to write this book. If Mary had slapped on a patch, none of this would have happened.”
Mary Shields is a 52-year-old criminal social worker in a godforsaken district of Glasgow. Too busy trying to make a difference, or at least to avoid drowning in red tape, she fails to consult a doctor about her increasingly erratic behaviour (“I’ve decided to be bad at this job. My guess is that I’ll be much better at it when I’m bad at it.”)
Unfortunately, Mary makes a terrible mistake when dealing with her least favourite client, who has become a hero of the dodgier end of the men’s rights movement after killing his unfaithful wife. Her attempts to reassert control of the situation by illegal methods prove tragicomically inept.
Like FitzGerald’s previous novels, The Cry (which inspired the best television crime drama in last year’s very strong field) and Viral, this book is about how easily people’s mistakes can turn them into dehumanised public hate figures. The glorious thing about Mary, though, is that she is no saint. She is a totally captivating character, the most unapologetically sexual middle-aged woman I have encountered in a book since The Wife of Bath’s Tale. This is a novel driven by feminist anger and a celebration of the unsung, ill-rewarded heroism of social workers. But with its delightful lack of taste – FitzGerald writes like a more focused Irvine Welsh or a less misogynist Philip Roth – it is first and foremost a scandalously rude comic masterpiece.
The Divinities by Parker Bilal (Indigo Press) ★★★★☆
When, late in his fiction-writing career, Philip Roth began to combine his usual accomplished character studies with reflections on national and international politics – to mesh the “micro” with the “macro”, as Christopher Hitchens put it – the critics swooned and demanded that he be given the Nobel Prize. But this technique has been standard practice in crime fiction for many decades.
Parker Bilal has proved himself a master at combining micro and macro in his series of novels about an exiled Sudanese detective in Egypt during the fag-end of the Mubarak regime. (Bilal, who also writes literary fiction under his real name, Jamal Mahjoub, is of Sudanese and British parentage.) Now his latest novel inaugurates a new series set in London.
The book begins with the discovery of a pair of apparently unconnected corpses – a man and a woman – squashed by a dumper truck’s worth of rocks on the building site for a posh new development in Battersea. Truculent, hard-drinking DS Cal Drake, who has a complicated relationship with Islam, his superiors and everything else, hopes to reverse his recent demotion by cracking the case, and has little time for the airy-fairy theories of forensic psychologist Dr Rayhana Crane, who thinks the killings may be a hi-tech version of the practice of stoning adulterers as demanded by Sharia law. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that the Iraq war plays a significant role in the mystery, as it has in the lives of both Drake and Crane.
Some of the links in the chain of narrative logic are a bit wobbly, but Bilal tells his story with a ferocious, exhilarating energy, and his characters feel real, not just illustrations of themes. This is essential reading for anybody interested to see how the recent past is shaping the present.
Domino Island by Desmond Bagley (Harper Collins) ★★★★☆
British writers dominated the action thriller genre in the Sixties and Seventies, as if to show that, even post-Empire, we could still police the world, if only on paper. Leading our mega-sellers was Desmond Bagley, whose thrillers featured cucumber-cool Brits sorting out trouble in unusually well-realised exotic locations.
Bagley died in 1983, aged 59, but now an unpublished novel written in the early Seventies has come to light. Its narrator is Bill Kemp, the finest insurance investigator in London, who is dispatched to Campanilla, a Caribbean island that has gone to pot since Britain granted it independence, to see whether there is anything dodgy about the death of a heavily insured tycoon.
Kemp is soon mixed up in local politics, advocating a middle way between the corrupt conservatism of the prime minister ("He's so crooked I bet he uses marked cards when he plays solitaire") and the anarchic radicalism of his opponents. He also finds himself between a cushion and a soft place as he attracts the attention of the dead man's comely widow and his statuesque mistress.
No thriller writer these days would stress the white saviour aspect so heavily ("perhaps I had altered the destiny of a country, even one as small as Campanilla, with just a few persuasive words"), but Bagley has made Kemp a witty and engaging hero – unlike the omnicompetent men's men of some other writers of this period, he skirts camp – and the female and native characters are well-rounded and rarely patronised. Campanilla is brought beautifully to life, both in its "raw streets" and the "colonial rococo" of its grander areas, and the novel's extended denouement is sweat-inducingly exciting. It's the perfect Father's Day gift for Bagley fans, but he deserves a new audience, too: he has a distinctive flavour, not quite like any other writer then or now.
This Storm by James Ellroy (William Heinemann) ★★★☆☆
James Ellroy writes coarse, prurient, paranoid novels that often turn out to be masterpieces. Beside his raw, messy books, crime novels that have neat plots, or offer a note of hope or redemption, start to look prissily inauthentic. Truffling for atrocities in the dirty reality of crime seems to inspire him with a demonic energy that his distinctive telegraphic style is the perfect instrument to convey. At his best, that is.
His latest project is a series of prequels to his classic LA Quartet, set during the Second World War and so far comprising Perfidia (2014) and now This Storm. I couldn't finish Perfidia, and This Storm, despite flashes of brilliance, often tried my patience.
It is possible that I am going soft in my middle age, and that 10 years ago I would have revelled along with Ellroy in his catalogue of beatings, bonkings and boozing. I can still be thrilled by the bleak vision of the original LA Quartet, however; the problem with these prequels is that Ellroy is too often a parody of himself, ramping (or camping) up the nastiness to absurd levels. (There is a scene involving torture-by-scorpion that Cubby Broccoli would have rejected as too melodramatic).
There are some terrific stretches – including an account of the "Battle of Los Angeles", the night in 1942 when a mass delusion arose that the city was under aerial attack – that ranks among his best setpieces. But it becomes hard to care as Ellroy sets about connecting the strands of his convoluted plot (involving murderous attacks on LA's Japanese residents and corrupt cops chasing stolen gold) with his usual conspiracy theorist's doggedness. It is not so much that the power of his brutal vision has diminished, but it has diffused as he has become more self-indulgent and less interested in the craftsmanship that, we can now see, must always have been there behind the sprawl.
Cari Mora by Thomas Harris (William Heinemann) ★★★☆☆
The more Thomas Harris has written about Hannibal Lecter, the more the character has lost his distinctive flavour – not an apt fate for a cannibal. So it is probably for the best that in his new novel, his first for 13 years, Harris has headed in a new direction, with his first Lecter-free book since his debut, Black Sunday (1975). In Cari Mora, he is attempting a crime caper in the manner of Elmore Leonard.
His plot does not deviate from the Leonard template, with rival crooks striving to track down a dead gangster’s stash of gold (I’d look in that crate labelled “MacGuffin”) and offing each other inventively in the process. Having to decide whom to abet and whom to avoid is the eponymous Cara, a 25-year-old Colombian beauty with wobbly immigration status who is the live-in housekeeper at the dead crook’s Miami Beach Mansion.
Harris doesn’t have Leonard’s gift of enabling his characters to talk their way into three dimensions: more memorable than his dialogue is his pawky narrative voice, prone to wry observations. By and large, his prose is a pleasure to read, written with gusto and often real wit. But the characters are pretty forgettable, apart from a German baddy chiefly notable for embodying so many national stereotypes that he reads as if created by Basil Fawlty after his head injury. He serves as a reminder that villains can be motivated by something more sinister and strange than gold-lust; but compared with Lecter he is a pussycat.
Harris clearly doesn’t share Leonard’s faith in froth as its own justification and interrupts his narrative with several wodges of back story detailing Cari’s harrowing years as a child soldier with the Farc. Skim the solemn bits: the pleasure one takes in this novel is in watching Harris unwind, have some fun and (to give him the benefit of the doubt) send himself up a bit.
Inheritance Tracks by Catherine Aird (Allison & Busby) ★★★★☆
Which of the fictional detectives still in harness has had the longest crime-busting career? I reckon it’s Detective Inspector CD (“Seedy”) Sloan, who made his debut in Catherine Aird’s first novel, The Religious Body, in 1966, and must be aiming to beat Hercule Poirot’s record of 55 years on the page.
You don’t read Catherine Aird for excitement: there would be more tension in watching Usain Bolt race a Galapagos tortoise. She is one of the finest practitioners of that subgenre, already old-fashioned when she took it up, of detective fiction as Jane Austen might have written it: as a means of having fun with the foibles of the ordinary middle-class people who make up her readership.
Aird has been very successful in America, where distance makes it easier to believe that an English county town represents the acme of civilisation and so to appreciate the piquancy of the eruption of murder against such a backdrop. Violent crime is strangely un-distressing in her fictional county of Calleshire, where DI Sloan and his sensible wife never age a day, and Sloan’s hapless sidekick DC Crosby, whose aim in life is to use the “nee-naws” on his police car as often as possible, remains as bizarrely childlike as he was half a century ago. There is an edge, however, to this tale of the murderous consequences of an eccentric bequest from a Victorian entrepreneur, as it is quietly but firmly feminist, and tackles the topical subject of homelessness with a refreshing humour and lack of sanctimony.
If this 25th entry in the Sloan series is not quite up to the standard of such classic Aird titles as Henrietta Who? or Parting Breath, it is written with an admirable elegance and allusive wit. If you like Midsomer Murders but think it would be improved if it showed more of a feeling for what real people are like, spend next Sunday evening with an Aird instead.
Liberation Square by Gareth Rubin (Michael Joseph) ★★★★☆
Alternative history is a daunting genre for a writer to tackle, requiring not only enough knowledge to fill a couple of PhD theses but also the imaginative flair to pursue the logical outcome of events if what happened hadn’t happened – the historian’s equivalent of the Duckworth-Lewis method. When Alt Hist works it is irresistible, and it seems to be in vogue at the moment.
In an alternative universe, the journalist Gareth Rubin might have been lucky enough not to have his debut novel published in the same week as Ian McEwan’s headline-hogging Alt Hist effort Machines Like Me. Rubin’s murder mystery, set in 1952 as Britain is still recovering from losing the war, deserves attention.
In Rubin’s universe, the Nazis have been driven out of Britain by the Soviets and the country has ended up divided, as Germany was in reality, between the Reds and the Yanks. Checkpoint Charlie is in London and our narrator, the teacher Jane Cawson, lives on the Soviet side, ruled by a committee led by Anthony Blunt. Churchill, safe in Scotland with the Royal Family under US protection, leads the Resistance (Rubin treats us to some splendidly stirring cod-Churchillian speeches) but Jane believes her new overlords’ promises of the eradication of poverty. When her husband is arrested for the murder of his ex-wife on flimsy evidence, however, she sees the brutality inherent in the brave new world.
One could spend happy hours mentally chewing over the details of Rubin’s “Republic of Great Britain”, and deciding whether or not it improves on reality. (George Orwell has been saved from terminal illness – hooray! – but only after being interned in a “re-education camp” – boo!) However, his ingenuity knows its place, and he gives the knotty plot room to breathe. This is far more than an intellectual exercise – it is a gripping story, with heart.
Metropolis by Philip Kerr (Quercus) ★★★★☆
This is the last in the long series of Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr, who died last year aged 62 – a sentence that many of you will find as dismaying to read as I did to write. In the first book, March Violets (1989), Gunther was a private eye in Nazi Germany, but this novel acts as a prequel to the whole series, showing us how Gunther made his reputation as a police detective in 1928.
As with many of the later books in the series, there is plenty to nitpick over. Much of the dialogue is sublime, but an equal amount comprises great wodges of exposition. And although the book is not as baggy and episodic as its immediate predecessors, Kerr seems less interested in the plot for its own sake than as a means of exploring various theories about the real people Bernie encounters (George Grosz and Thea von Harbou among them) and the real events he witnesses.
None of this matters a jot, though, when an author evokes a time and a place as well as Kerr does here. Berlin always fired his imagination more than anywhere else, and his sardonic humour is perfectly suited to portraying the casual cruelties and careless decadence of the Weimar era, as Bernie witnesses the “Cabaret of the Nameless”, at which the maimed and mentally ill were forced to debase themselves before baying audiences, and finds himself fancying transvestites. The sweet stink of the city wafts from Kerr’s pages and the reader gulps it down in happy lungfuls.
The late Andrea Levy said that when she was diagnosed with cancer she stopped writing because she wanted to live instead. Kerr, who wrote this book in the throes of terminal cancer, showed that writing was living. To read any of his books, however flawed, feels like an act of resurrection, so powerfully does his immense, unique intelligence leap from the pages.
The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson (Sceptre) ★★★★☆
For the loved ones of murder victims, a fresh horror often comes long after the event, when they realise that the killer's name is still common currency while the victim is disappearing from the public consciousness. One striking example is the murder of the Lucan family nanny Sandra Rivett in 1974, now little more than the set-up to gags about her long-vanished killer, the 7th Earl of Lucan. The heartlessness with which the British laugh at nobs in trouble has extended to the good-hearted young woman who was collateral damage in Lucan's bungled attempt to murder his wife.
Jill Dawson has tried to redress the balance with her 10th novel. Although the names and a few details have been changed – Sandra becomes Mandy, the Lucans are renamed the Morvens – this is the nanny's–eye view of the Lucan story. Dawson is an old hand at weaving fictions around real people; her last novel, The Crime Writer, imagined Patricia Highsmith committing a murder. The departures from fact in this book are less dramatic, but in a way that makes them more worrying – Lady Morven and Mandy are superbly drawn characters, very close to their originals and yet not them, in a way that doesn't seem quite fair.
Lord Morven is not as convincing a character as these two women, partly, one suspects, because Dawson is so firmly on the women's side. Lucan was a pathetic figure but he also possessed a sulphurous charm, which the author repeatedly tells us about but doesn't entirely manage to convey.
Still, this is a sensitive and often beautifully written novel that examines the case thoroughly without making you feel like a rubbernecker. Dawson's greatest achievement is to breathe life into Sandra, emphasising that she would deserve our attention even if she had not met such a tragic end.
The Unmourned by Meg & Tom Keneally (Point Blank) ★★★★☆
I try to manage my expectations when eminent literary novelists turn to crime fiction, but I had high hopes of this collaboration between the Australian author Thomas Keneally and his daughter Meg. Keneally père, a Booker Prize-winner (for Schindler’s Ark), has been demonstrating for decades that the tackling of serious themes and a singing prose style are not incompatible with narrative drive and popular appeal.
The Keneallys’ plan is to write 12 books – an ambitious enough undertaking, even if one of the co-authors weren’t in his eighties – with each one set in a different Australian penal settlement in the 1820s. Our heroes are two ticket-of-leave (ie paroled) convicts: Hugh Monsarrat, an Englishman who has done time for impersonating a lawyer, and Hannah Mulrooney, an Irishwoman transported for stealing butter to feed her baby, who is now Hugh’s housekeeper.
This second entry in the series (following The Soldier’s Curse) finds Hugh and Hannah in Parramatta, a suburb of Sydney, caught up in murky goings-on at the “female factory” where women convicts are forced to labour for their keep, when they’re not being paraded in front of visitors in search of a servant or a wife. The superintendent’s exercising of droit de seigneur earns him an awl in the eye.
The whodunnit element of the story is a bit perfunctory, with the killer’s identity revealed well before the end for a deliciously melodramatic extended climax, but that hardly matters with writing of this quality. Keneally’s gift for breathing life into every member of a large cast is potently in evidence, with the result that the sufferings of these women seem as urgent and affecting as any act of brutality in today’s newspaper. Any bloke writing with this much energy, with a youthful collaborator or not, is good for another 10 books, I’d judge.
The Guilty Party by Mel McGrath (HQ) ★★★★☆
“Domestic noir” is the label given to that subset of the psychological thriller in which a woman takes 400 pages to realise that her husband is a wrong’un. Perhaps because there is a limit to the possible variations on this theme, there is now a sub-subset in which a long-standing, close-knit group of friends are revealed to be keeping sinister secrets from each other. One can see why this set-up is chiming with a generation who grew up being told that your friends will always be waiting for you in Central Perk when lovers or family let you down, but are now discovering that some friendships can be just as dysfunctional, and just as impossible to extricate yourself from.
I’ve read a fair few examples of this subgenre – chum noir? – lately, and Mel McGrath’s The Guilty Party is easily the best. Four 30-somethings, best friends since their undergrad days at Oxford, are renting a cottage on the Isle of Portland to celebrate a birthday in the group. But this is a guilty party indeed, as the four are facing up to the fact that they recently witnessed a woman being raped late at night in London, and decided, for various reasons of their own, not to report it. The woman was later found dead in the Thames.
As each group member’s motives for keeping shtum are uncovered, there is no radical departure from this genre’s standard depiction of the wealthy and privileged as terminally self-obsessed and just asking to be taken down a peg or two; only Cassie, the one member to come from a poor family, feels any compassion for the dead woman.
Within the template, however, McGrath has come up with some psychologically acute and entertaining characterisations. And where many authors might feel that that would be enough to let them off the effort of constructing a decent plot, hers is of deeply satisfying intricacy.
The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown) ★★★☆☆
The novels of Alexander McCall Smith can safely be recommended to those who find The Archers overstimulating. His formula, as practised in the phenomenally successful The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie novels, is to follow the structure of the detective story but disrupt its rhythms and remove its urgency, giving his sleuths not terribly serious crimes to investigate and frequently suspending all references to the plot while his characters indulge in lengthy and inconsequential conversations.
The effect is wonderfully soothing and relaxing; the books do not make you sit on the edge of your seat but sink deeper into your chair. In drug users' parlance, they are downers rather than uppers. And while McCall Smith's world may be a highly selective reshaping of the real one, he has the creative power to make it seem, in its quiet way, truer than truth. He is not, however, on top form in the first book in his new series featuring Ulf Varg, "possibly the kindest man in the entire Swedish police service". The whimsical dialogue is enjoyable, and the cases Varg investigates, including a sad sack student who invents a boyfriend and is then accused of murdering him, are appealingly offbeat.
But although McCall Smith clearly wants to reclaim Sweden from the overwrought angstiness of Nordic noir, his Malmö seems cardboardy compared with his Botswana or Edinburgh, and one of Varg's sidekicks, whose purpose is to irritate him for comic effect, has the uncomic effect of irritating the reader too.
Still, I want to read more about Varg, his depressed dog, and his plangent passion for a married colleague. Even if this inaugural volume was not top-drawer McCall Smith, it left me with a warm glow that lasted through several news bulletins.
The Border by Don Winslow (HarperCollins) ★★★★★
If you think that art can change the world for the better, look at the career of Don Winslow and weep. In 2005 he published The Power of the Dog, an epic thriller that explained why the American political establishment’s 30-year “war on drugs” had achieved nothing apart from enriching Mexican gangsters. A decade later came a sequel, The Cartel, which depicted a Mexico vitiated by gang warfare. Now comes a third volume, showing how the Mexican cartels are exploiting the US opioid crisis to offload cheap, sometimes lethally doctored, drugs.
For all the effect his books have had on the US government’s ruinously counterproductive policies, Winslow might just as usefully have spent the past 20 years banging his head against a brick wall. One can hardly believe that his anger hasn’t driven him mad; but it also oxidises his prose, expands the range and ambition of his storytelling, and makes the trilogy one of the great literary achievements of the century so far.
It is as multi-stranded as a novel by Victor Hugo, with dozens of characters and storylines, but at the heart of the first two volumes is the relationship between Cassandra-like Drug Enforcement Administration agent Art Keller and his Moriarty, the Mexican drug baron Adán Barrera. In The Border, Barrera is dead, making the cartels even more unstable and dangerous, and Keller switches his focus to an oafish US president named Dennison, whose calls for a border wall are a cover for his own collusion with the cartels.
Winslow’s work is witty and thrilling as well as righteous, and it’s a shame that he’s not better known. This may be because, as TS Eliot put it, humankind cannot bear too much reality; but in an age of President Dennisons, we need writers who bear witness to the truth as unflinchingly as Winslow.
To the Lions by Holly Watt (Raven) ★★★★★
Not many British thrillers have journalists as heroes, perhaps because the public do not regard journalists as heroic. And yet, as Holly Watt’s debut novel proves, few jobs can be as exciting to read about as investigative journalism, which requires a unique mixture of charm and ruthlessness, and obliges its practitioners to deliver Bafta-worthy performances in one or more guises on a daily basis.
Watt is one of the stars of the profession, a former Telegraph staffer who helped to uncover the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. Although she cannot have been as reckless in pursuit of a story as her heroine Casey Benedict is – she would not have survived to write the book if she were – much of the novel’s appeal lies in the authenticity of its depiction of an undercover hack’s life and tradecraft. As Casey heads to Libya to untangle the connections between murders in a refugee camp and some eminent British financiers, Watt dutifully explores the moral and personal compromises that come with the job. But never for a moment does the book stop crackling with the author’s pleasure in conveying the excitement and fulfilment that her career has brought her.
The depiction of life at The Post, her fictional broadsheet, is superbly entertaining (“The reporters were scruffy, grumpy; Dorian Gray paintings of their own byline photographs”) and grounds the book in a reality that helps us to swallow the more implausible parts of the plot (although if Watt has actually cracked a story by playing a grandmaster-level game of chess, I beg her pardon).
A romantic sub-plot feels somewhat tacked on, but otherwise the novel is pacy and genuinely thrilling. Watt has lived her story and that is the main draw, but she is also a proper writer with a fine turn of phrase. This promises to be an outstanding series.
The Last by Hanna Jameson (Viking) ★★★★☆
I have always found a good deal of comfort in We Will All Go Together When We Go, Tom Lehrer’s ditty about nuclear Armageddon. Call me defeatist, but the idea of perishing in a nuclear war bothers me much less than the thought of surviving one, and having to cope with living in a world without pizza or YouTube. Hanna Jameson’s enjoyably nightmarish fourth novel posits what is probably the most attractive post-apocalyptic scenario imaginable, and even that is far from appealing.
The book begins with the narrator, American academic Jon Keller, attending a conference in a hotel in Switzerland when he and his fellow guests learn that nuclear strikes are destroying most of the major cities in the West. There is a brief window of time for them to follow the end of the world on social media before their internet connection fails. Keller and the other survivors are in a decent position: they have food, medicine and firearms, a hotel doctor, and a chef who is happy to cook for them (perhaps Lenny Henry, in his next Premier Inn advert, should promise that the complimentary breakfast will still be available in the event of the Apocalypse).
To help stave off boredom, there is even a murder mystery to solve, after Keller discovers the corpse of an unidentified little girl in one of the hotel water tanks. It is a long way from The Road, yet the novel is at its strongest when rehearsing the staples of post-apocalyptic fiction: the ways in which people try to cling on to their humanity, and the tensions within the makeshift tribes they find themselves in.
There is a supernatural element that adds something different to the mix without being too intrusive, but it is Jameson’s portrayal, both imaginative and plausible, of how her characters adapt to their new life that makes her novel such compulsive reading.
Slow Motion Ghosts by Jeff Noon (Doubleday) ★★★★☆
It seems like an odd fit: the soaring, eccentric imagination of Jeff Noon, the writer best known for works of trippily vivid science fiction such as Vurt (1993), and the police procedural – the most earthbound subgenre of crime fiction, doggedly replicating the footslog of criminal investigation.
Noon is clearly a devotee of crime fiction – he has been the crime critic of The Spectator for the past few years – and last year he published The Body Library, an existential thriller about a private eye in a Borgesian parallel universe that was exactly the sort of crabwise scuttle into the genre one would have expected from him. Slow Motion Ghosts, by contrast, feels like a bid for a mainstream audience, embracing the conventions, and sometimes the clichés, of the procedural. But if there is nothing here to frighten off fans of boilerplate romans policiers, the book still has a distinctive and appealing flavour.
Set in the aftermath of the Brixton riots, the novel begins with virtuous DI Henry Hobbes arriving as a pariah at his new bailiwick in Richmond – partly because he is the only copper in his nick with a bad word to say about Mrs Thatcher, but mostly because his recent dobbing in of a bad-apple colleague resulted in the man’s suicide. This is part of the standard-issue multipack of personal problems that Hobbes has to cope with while he investigates a series of spookily ritualistic killings that have some connection with the suicide several years earlier of Lucas Bell, a Bowie-esque glam rock star.
The enjoyably convoluted plot encompasses a heartfelt and moving examination of the other-worldly appeal of glam rock for nerds and outsiders. If you weren’t poleaxed by Bowie’s death, this very absorbing novel will help to explain why others were. And the melancholy passion underneath the story’s surface helps to lift it above the ruck.
Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle) ★★★★☆
The will of the people is a mercurial thing. Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s debut novel begins in 1781, when, as one character puts it, “you’d need to work a spell upon the English people if you ever hoped to end slavery. They like cheap sugar in their tea and cheap tobacco in their pipes.” By means of an enjoyably convoluted murder mystery, the book then goes on to demonstrate how the abolitionists would win hearts and minds to such an extent that Parliament abolished slavery within 30 years.
What motors the plot is Shepherd-Robinson’s scholarship, her understanding of 18th-century law and what might be termed the national collective consciousness. She shows us an England tolerant of slavery in principle, but capable of being outraged by inhumane treatment of slaves.
Abolitionist Tad Archer comes up with a scheme to dodge the legal hurdles that prevent the exposure of the worst excesses of the slave traders. He is murdered, his corpse suspended from a hook at Deptford Dock, and his estranged friend Captain Harry Corsham vows to find the killer, even though his investigations are bound to make him powerful enemies and jeopardise his ambition to enter Parliament.
Shepherd-Robinson appears to have read every book, essay and pamphlet ever written about the 18th century, but her knowledge is worn lightly and she brings the period splendidly to life in her horrible but irresistible portrayal of Deptford – a lawless hellhole where every building that isn’t a pub is a brothel. The book could have done with a final round of editorial whack-a-mole to remove some verbal anachronisms, but they are a small price to pay for its easy, fluent style. What is most striking, though, is that the characters manage to play their roles as representatives of the forces of history while being also abundantly individual and full of life.
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (HarperCollins) ★★★★☆
A recent trend in crime fiction, exemplified by the bestselling novels of Ruth Ware, has been to examine how close-knit groups of friends can have much of the same dysfunctionality that often afflicts families. Such books usually feature characters on the brink of middle age discovering that neither they nor their cherished chums are quite the same people they used to be in their carefree youth. And so when these friends get together en masse, they turn out to be as ill-assorted as the attendees at a family gathering in an Agatha Christie novel – and the stresses and tensions end just as inevitably in murder.
The Hunting Party, the first contemporary crime thriller by the historical novelist Lucy Foley, centres on a group of nine friends who have hired a remote hunting lodge in the Highlands to see in the new year. The thirtysomething characters, who take turns to narrate the story, find it hard to recapture the dynamic of their Oxford undergraduate days: the former daredevils of the group have been tamed by the pressure of work and babies, and they are all, having reached an age where they ought at last to have attained something, anxiously comparing themselves with each other. Grudges and secrets are spilt, and one of the party ends up dead. With the aid of sometimes absurdly circumlocutory dialogue, the identity of the victim is kept from the reader until the end: it’s a who-copped-it as well as a whodunit.
As with many popular crime novels at the moment, you will only achieve maximum enjoyment if you embrace the schadenfreude of reading about middle-class, privileged, spoilt people seeing their lives unravel. But Foley has managed to make her characters fascinating in their unpleasantness, and constructed a very clever plot to enmesh them in. The result is Peter’s Friends enjoyably recast as melodrama.
A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon, tr Daniella Zamir (MacLehose) ★★★★☆
Michael Frayn’s farcical novel Skios begins with a man leaving an airport and being seized by the urge (and, admit it, we’ve all felt it) to see what would happen if he approached a driver holding a pickup sign and pretended to be the person named on it. This debut thriller by the Israeli journalist Dov Alfon has the same starting point – only he plays the idea for thrills rather than laughs.
A Long Night in Paris begins at Charles de Gaulle Airport with a young Israeli tech entrepreneur deciding that it would be a laugh to crash a stranger’s pickup. Unfortunately for him, the man he playfully impersonates is an Israeli intelligence worker, and the voluptuous blonde with the pickup notice is in on a plot to kidnap him.
The techie’s subsequent abduction is initially hushed up by the Israeli government to prevent panic, but becomes trumpeted as a major incident when the prime minister realises that he needs to distract attention from his wife’s spending of obscene sums of public money on her hairdo. If this sounds like slightly laboured satire, one ought to remember that Alfon has served with Unit 8200, an enigmatic branch of the Israeli Defence Forces, and presumably knows what he’s talking about in depicting a secret service that devotes as much time to spin as spying.
This is a deeply enjoyable espionage thriller with plenty of juicy details about modern spycraft, and although he is sometimes as sardonic and cynical as John le Carré, Alfon's style is light and relaxed. He invests his heroes, Bond-esque spymaster Colonel Zeev Abadi and his beautiful, brilliant deputy Lt Oriana Talmor, with his own agreeable sense of humour, with the result – something of a rarity in this macho, moody genre – that this is a spy novel with lead characters who are genuinely likeable.
Red Snow by Will Dean (Point Blank) ★★★★☆
There are an awful lot of crime novels set in tiny, remote Scandinavian towns, where every resident is taciturn because their saliva freezes if they open their mouths. I have enjoyed many of these books, but a kind of snow blindness affects my memory’s eye when I look back and try to distinguish them from one another.
I am not likely, however, to forget about Gavrik, the town created by Will Dean. Dean is an English writer who lives in a house he built himself in rural Sweden, and his first book, Dark Pines, was justly trumpeted as one of the best debut novels of 2017. Gavrik, in which residents ski to the supermarket, is a brilliantly weird creation; it seems at times to owe a debt to Twin Peaks, and yet Dean writes with such authority and sympathy for his wacky characters that one starts to believe that he is simply setting down a faithful record based on close observation of his Swedish neighbours.
In Red Snow, a sequel to Dark Pines that is even better than the original, we once again view Gavrik through the eyes of Stockholm-born heavy-drinking Tuva Moodyson, a reporter for the local paper whose outsider status is underlined by her being deaf. The book begins with Tuva witnessing the owner of Gavrik’s biggest employer, the liquorice factory, jumping to his death from the factory chimney, and grisly murders and spooky goings-on ensue.
Dean couldnt have a finer talent for ingenious metaphorical description of snowy landscapes if he were an Inuit. His feeling for place is matched by the quality of his characterisations, and his book is blessed with one of those wonderful multi-layered plots in which a dozen mysteries large and small are finally connected at the end with a craftsman's skill. This is just what crime fiction readers want: the old magic formula, made to seem fresh.