Pleasantville by Attica Locke; The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul E Hardisty; I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh; A Song of Shadows by John Connolly; The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell; The Serpent Papers by Jessica Cornwell; The Infidel Stain by M J Carter; The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr; Mr Campion’s Fox by Mike Ripley - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

April 2015 Crime Round-up

  • Attica Locke, 
  • Paul E Hardisty, 
  • Clare Mackintosh, 
  • John Connolly, 
  • Ian Caldwell, 
  • Jessica Cornwell, 
  • M J Carter, 
  • Philip Kerr, 
  • Mike Ripley


By Attica Locke

Serpent’s Tail 432pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This is Attica Locke’s third novel and it is as good as her previous two, which is saying a lot. She has a remarkable knack of combining social commentary and realism with the tension of a good thriller. Her books feature mostly black Texans living in the Clinton era. In Pleasantville Jay Porter, a recently widowed lawyer, is struggling to bring up his teenage children without their mother, to carry on with a massive class action against an industrial polluter, to keep his one-man law practice going and to fight for a client facing a trumped-up murder charge. The John Grisham-style trial is the least successful part of the book because the judge behaves properly and the evidence produces few surprises. However, Locke’s portraits of the black community and of the political manoeuvres of the litigants and their teams are fascinating and convincing. This skilful combination of social commentary and conventional crime fiction, set in a time and place of notable change, makes a fascinating read.

The Abrupt Physics of Dying

By Paul E Hardisty

Orenda Books 450pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

A South African loner with a violent past, a beautiful female journalist, an oil company in Yemen ruthlessly polluting the desert and poisoning the water supply, impoverished villagers, rival terrorists – this first novel, by an academic specialising in environmental science, has all the ingredients of the kind of action thriller that I wouldn’t normally choose to read. What a mistake it would have been to have avoided it. This is a remarkably well-written, sophisticated novel in which the people and places, as well as the frequent scenes of violent action, all come alive on the page. The hero, Clay, is haunted by remorse for his actions as a young soldier in Africa. He has become the kind of man who can disarm an enemy without weapons, knows when he is being followed and doesn’t allow a little thing like gangrene to stop him fighting on. This is a really excellent debut.

I Let You Go

By Clare Mackintosh

Sphere 384pp £13.99 order from our bookshop

Cleverly narrated in several voices, this accomplished first novel tells the story of Jenna, a successful sculptor who walks away from her old life to start a new one, alone, in a derelict Welsh cottage. Something dreadful has happened: a five-year-old boy was killed by a car in a hit-and-run crash. It seems clear that Jenna was driving the car and feels guilty of this crime, and is punishing herself for it, and that the mystery is not whodunnit but why she doesn’t admit to doing it. The answer to that question dominates the second half of the book. The sensitive, rounded portraits of Jenna and those she comes into contact with, and of the police officers who have a more than professional determination to find the callous killer, are persuasively executed by an author who was herself a police officer for several years.

A Song of Shadows

By John Connolly

Hodder & Stoughton 448pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Charlie Parker, the hero of John Connolly’s series, is recovering from fearful wounds inflicted in the previous book. He takes a house on the beach in Maine, where he is inevitably drawn into the problems of his neighbour, Ruth, a single mother with one daughter. Like Charlie, Ruth has come here to lie low, unsuccessfully. She is found and killed. The body of a man also washes up on the beach – in fact, there is murder wherever the second-sighted Parker goes. He also has a small daughter who converses with ghosts and has disturbing insights, an ex-wife who still loves him and many faithful (though brutal) helpers and allies. With its psychic and supernatural happenings, and a writing style that alternates between ultra-demotic and occasional pomposity, this series of thrillers is shockingly violent – and invariably on the bestseller list.

The Fifth Gospel

By Ian Caldwell

Simon & Schuster 448pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This is an ingenious and erudite novel that demands a good deal from the reader and concerns an ancient text. It is set inside Vatican City, that tiny independent state inhabited predominantly by members and run by grandees of the Catholic Church. The sought-after text is a little-known fifth gospel; what it will disclose is the truth about the controversial Turin Shroud. The revelation is intended to take place at an exhibition in the Vatican Museums, but a few days before its opening the curator is murdered. The narrator, a Greek Catholic priest, is a widower with a small son – there are very few female characters in the book – and his brother, a Roman Catholic priest and therefore celibate, is the prime suspect. The setting is carefully described and intriguing because it is so very peculiar, but the story did not grab me.

The Serpent Papers

By Jessica Cornwell

Quercus 480pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This remarkable first novel, set in Barcelona and Mallorca, also asks a lot of its readers. Not only does it shift between centuries and places and between various voices, it also includes a contemporary murder mystery interrupted by passages of instruction (very necessary, for most readers) about 12th-century history, the decipherment and treatment of manuscripts, alchemy, prophecy, witchcraft and life in contemporary Spain. Anna Verco is an academic and book thief who has psychic powers that may be of use to Inspector Fabregat of the Barcelona police in finding the murderer of four young women. At the same time Anna is searching for the lost manuscripts of Rex Illuminatus, which are believed to explain many mysteries of the medieval world. With complexity heaped on complication, The Serpent Papers is in no way an easy read, but it is a very interesting and unusual book. As the first in a projected trilogy, it will leave many readers impatient for the next.

The Infidel Stain

By M J Carter

Fig Tree 368pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This atmospheric and well-informed second novel again features Captain William Avery, formerly of the British Army, and Mr Theophilus Blake, both back in England after their adventures in India. Now they are investigating killings in the dreadful slums of London in 1841 and finding unexpected connections with high society. Carter’s first novel was enriched by its exotic setting, so this one, though seriously good, seems less exciting.

The Lady from Zagreb

By Philip Kerr

Quercus 464pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The Lady from Zagreb sees the welcome return of Bernie Gunther, still performing his perilous balancing act as a Berlin cop who is useful to Nazi leaders, while haunted by the atrocities they have perpetrated. He falls in love with Goebbels’s film-star mistress, travels to Switzerland and Croatia and gets away with all his cunning subversion.

Mr Campion’s Fox

By Mike Ripley

Severn House 288pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

When Margery Allingham died her husband, Philip Youngman Carter, took over her series featuring the detective Albert Campion. Now Mike Ripley has taken over from him, so this Campion story is descended from, rather than a continuation of, Allingham’s series. It’s amusing, cleverly plotted and very enjoyable.

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