Books sent out for review usually come with a press release. It tends to include quotes from good reviews of the author’s previous novels, pre-publication praise of the one it accompanies and a useful précis of the story. But occasionally the commentary catches the attention rather more than the book itself. One of this month’s batch was advertised as ‘the first feminist psychological thriller’. What can this extraordinary statement mean? Many thriller writers are women and many women write thrillers, ‘psychological’ or otherwise. Many – in fact probably most – women writers are feminists themselves and make feminism an attribute of the women they write about; it is several decades since it was acceptable for an editor or reviewer to doubt the plausibility of a female ‘action heroine’. Quite a few, in fact, appear (or reappear) in this month’s haul of crime novels.
The most convincing action heroines are police officers. Maeve Kerrigan, now on her seventh outing and rising through the ranks, has become a detective sergeant and is a member of the major incident team. It has been called to a house in west London, where a teenager, Chloe Emery, lives with her mother. Chloe has come home after spending a weekend with her father, but she opens the front door onto a horrible scene. The house is coated in blood. But nobody is there, dead or alive. Chloe’s mother has disappeared. The story twists and turns, always quite credibly, and at the same time more details of Maeve and her life are unobtrusively fed into the mix. Jane Casey writes in a straightforward, unadorned style, telling stories that could be true. I recommend them.
The setting of this clever book is Glasgow, not the city of culture that it has become but Glasgow in the 1950s, a phrase to depress or frighten people who remember being there at that time. In the 1960s, I prevented my husband from applying for a job in Glasgow by saying that I wouldn’t go with him to the dour, dirty, dangerous city that, as Mina puts it, ‘revered angry men’. The Long Drop tells the true story of Peter Manuel, notoriously Scotland’s most prolific serial murderer, a liar, rapist and torturer who in two years killed at least eight people. There is little mystery here, but a demonstration that the repercussions of criminal activity are painful and that the wounds don’t easily heal. The terse narrative is in the present tense, with no holds barred in descriptions of people and their words and actions. This is an interesting, even impressive book, but it re-creates dislikeable characters and unappealing places too convincingly for the reader really to enjoy them.
This novel is set in Hollywood in 1939, where they are making The Wizard of Oz. The film industry is all-powerful and all-important. It is in everyone’s interest to present a glamorous image to the world. Little misdemeanours, as well as more serious crimes, can be and always are covered up. Fixing Hollywood’s problems has been the life’s work of Detective Jonathan Craine and there is no reason why the suspicious death of a producer should be especially difficult to smooth over. But Craine, recently widowed, is tiring of Hollywood’s crimes, a feeling exacerbated by the discovery of a connection between the producer’s death and a Chicago crime syndicate, some stolen works of art and a prostitution racket. Soon he finds himself falling for the dead producer’s widow, a beautiful starlet. But this is Hollywood, where nothing is what it seems. The Pictures is a skilfully written, atmospheric tale, which has evidently been researched with scrupulous care; anyone who knows about prewar Hollywood will have fun separating historical fact from invented material and recognising real names among the fictional ones.
This novel, published in France two years ago, has won major French prizes and comes garlanded with praise. As one French reviewer put it, it is malign, Machiavellian and manipulative. The story is simple. The narrator, Delphine, is a successful novelist who lives alone. She has a husband and children but they are always somewhere else. She meets (apparently by chance) another woman, known as L, who inveigles her way into Delphine’s life, copying her clothes and gradually taking over her domestic tasks; when Delphine’s writer’s block overcomes her, L actually does the writing. In fact she even impersonates the increasingly reclusive novelist at a public event. When Delphine’s family turn up, things are brought to a head. Although it is very well written and translated, the narrative is too leisurely and quite repetitive – and the plot device of a celebrity author having her identity stolen is one that has been used before.
This book contains the kind of writing – silky, seductive, unobtrusive – that carries one along almost willy-nilly. I picked the book up to get a taste of it and an hour later was still reading this clever, absorbing police procedural, set in London during the ‘Summer of Love’, in that unimaginable dark age before the introduction of home computers. Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen lives with his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Helen, who was previously also a police officer. Breen is investigating the case of a murdered prostitute who called herself Julie Teenager. Most of her clients were influential, powerful men, able to throw up obstacles to prevent ordinary policemen making routine inquiries. Breen finds himself warned off by his superiors, but he is a stubborn detective and is spurred on by Helen, who is taking the case very seriously and insists on getting involved. It’s a fine story and the book also works as a good historical novel, for the world of the Sixties, though easily within living memory, has become as foreign to us as ancient Rome.
At the beginning of this, the 26th novel involving the Venice police commissario Guido Brunetti, the protagonist seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Luckily his wife realises that he needs a break and is able to borrow a rich relation’s villa on Sant’Erasmo, one of the islands in the lagoon. Brunetti makes friends with the caretaker and goes out with him in his boat – in fact the first hundred pages describe a kind of rustic idyll, which ends when the caretaker’s dead body is found, drowned. At this point Brunetti returns to the office to conduct the investigation into his friend’s death. Donna Leon’s re-creation of Venice and her depiction of the series’ core characters – Brunetti himself and his family and colleagues – is, as always in this long-running series, a triumph.
Nathan, the hero of this enjoyable first novel, is the UK’s honorary consul in Venice, a position that seems to involve a lot of work, no pay and some unexpected danger when he gets involved with two brothers who have had long and profitable careers as fine-art thieves. The Venetian setting is vividly described and Gwynne Jones’s good, fluent writing makes for easy reading.