This is the fourth of Jane Thynne’s portraits of prewar Berlin. It is set in the last few weeks before war is declared, during the frenetic, frightening summer of 1939. The heroine, Clara Vine, is a British actress whose father is a notorious Germanophile. Clara’s German mother is – though this is never admitted – a Jew. Clara has lived in Berlin since the early days of Nazi rule. She has met the party’s leading figures, attended their decadent entertainments and even made friends (or pretended to) with their wives. It is exhausting to follow a heroine who is terrified every moment of every day, but the world Clara negotiates is indeed terrifying. Someone is always watching and threatening her, in both her day-to-day and her political activities. Thynne’s Berlin is a very different place from the one described by her husband, Philip Kerr, in his Bernie Gunther series, but both are reminders of how lucky we are not to have lived there and then.
Although this is Mick Herron’s ninth book, and despite the fact that he has won the prestigious Gold Dagger award for his crime fiction, Real Tigers is the first of his books to come my way. What a find! It is the third in a series of witty, cynical and immensely original books about the workers of Slough House, an outpost of MI5 where disgraced spies are posted to spend the rest of their working lives pushing paper. The story, though good, is not the main reason to read this book. Rather, it is its elegant style, original viewpoint, dry wit and spring-to-life characters, some recognisable. A politician who breathes ‘a bit of the old jolly into politics’ is deliciously described as a ‘loose cannon with a floppy fringe and a bicycle’ and a ‘public buffoon and private velociraptor’. I think Herron’s is the next big name in crime fiction.
Julia is the indulged daughter of prosperous professionals. This beautiful, intelligent, fortunate young woman has committed an unlikely and incongruous crime. She planted a bomb in a coffee shop in central London, which killed twenty-four people. She refuses to say why she did it but a journalist called Clare Hardenburg, commissioned to write about Julia, is trying to discover her motives. Or rather, was trying, since we learn early on that Clare herself is in prison, though the reason for her incarceration is part of the mystery. This is a book that requires careful reading, as facts appear from different angles; I kept having to leaf backwards to stop muddling up Clare, Julia, Amanda, Susanna, Amy, Rose and other nicely named female characters. A bit of rereading was no hardship, as this first novel is original and beautifully written.
This book falls neatly into the category of 21st-century police procedural, complete with the usual details: intrusive reporters; male police officers gobbling canteen food at their desks; female police officers who are either torn between the demands of work and home or are single and miserable; a lofty, distant male superintendent; an ambitious female sergeant who does all the work; and a postgraduate student who has disappeared without trace. So far, so unoriginal; but DS Manon Bradshaw is an attractive and interesting heroine, the story (set in Cambridge and London) is skilfully paced and the book is unusually well written. Having been a journalist, Susie Steiner knows how to capture the reader’s attention, keep her enthralled and sign off neatly. Missing, Presumed is an excellent crime novel.
I do not expect to remember all the details of the murder and mayhem in this historical thriller, or very much about the characters, but the description of London in 1666, as the Great Fire is at last dying down, is unforgettable. It is not a happy city; rather, it is a place of filthy debris and homeless people, of still-fanatical Puritans who expect to return to power, and of lawlessness. The hero is a government clerk ordered to hunt down the murderer of a man whose body was found in the ashes of St Paul’s Cathedral. The heroine, clever and well educated, dreams of being an architect. Instead, as the daughter of a fugitive regicide, she has to work as a skivvy; when she is raped, she must take her own revenge, because nobody else will. The story is complicated and requires concentration, but it is definitely worth the effort. Andrew Taylor’s previous historical crime novels have won numerous well-deserved prizes. Read this one to understand why.
Two parallel dramas are played out, the connection between them gradually becoming clear. In one, experienced psychologists are confronted with the child victim of grotesque parental cruelty and have to decide on her future. But the principal part of the book takes place in a mundane open-plan office in London, where half a dozen men and women pass their days facing a screen, faking friendship. When a brisk new broom is brought in to increase productivity, the team’s precarious harmony is shattered, and a ‘bonding’ weekend of frightening physical and mental exercises has the opposite of the desired effect. The two apparently unrelated stories eventually converge at the end of this intelligent and satisfying mystery.
A loving wife moves with her husband and two small children to a sinister house in the middle of nowhere. When her husband’s dead body is found in a ditch, she has to pull herself out of her postnatal daze and find answers to many previously unadmitted doubts about him and their way of life. A clever and claustrophobic tale.
This book arrived on the same day as another, eight hundred pages long. Thank goodness for traditional French crime fiction. Like George Simenon’s books, Pascal Garnier’s subversive, almost surreal tales come in slim little volumes, seldom more than 150 pages or so. But in that space he manages to say as much, and more memorably too, than many authors of books that are too heavy to hold. Too Close to the Edge is a portrait of life in the French countryside, where the widowed Eliette lives alone – her nearest neighbours are on a farm two kilometres away. When she offers a lift to the strange man who helped change her tyre, the repetitive routine of Eliette’s life is punctured and it starts to include drugs, guns, corpses and sex. Eliette has ‘stopped being a mother in order to take a second chance at being a woman’. Good luck to her.
Game warden Joe Pickett is as interesting as ever in his sixteenth adventure, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the wildlife and geology of Wyoming. It is human predators he is tracking in this instalment. Box manages to make the wide open spaces of the bleak, stony Red Desert seem interesting and even desirable – an illusion surely.