In this sequel to the enormously successful Norwegian by Night, Chief Inspector Sigrid Odegård travels to upstate New York in the hope of tracking down her long-lost brother, who is suspected of playing a part in the mysterious death of a well-known African-American academic. Sigrid speaks perfect English but it is her first visit to America and she is struck by the extent of the differences in daily life and in police procedure. Determined to find her brother before anyone else does, she is drawn into the investigation. Involvement with the local police gives her (and the author) endless opportunities to compare Norwegian and American life in general and police methods in particular. The story is well plotted and told, the writing style is original and charming, but to list or to praise individual components of this book is to miss the point. Taken as a whole, it is a work of art.
Another reviewer has compared John Lawton with the late Patrick O’Brian: ‘a sublimely elegant historical novelist as addictive as crack but overlooked by too many readers for too long’. It’s a fair comment, for this is Lawton’s twelfth thriller and people still reply, ‘Who?’ when I say he is one of my favourite crime novelists. His books are set in the mid-20th century and his hero is an unlikely one, a chief superintendent from Scotland Yard called Frederick Troy. He and his brother, a senior Labour politician, are the sons of a Russian émigré who became a newspaper tycoon. When Troy has problems, there is always some influential figure to help him out, and he is perfectly willing to wound and even kill if he knows he will get away with it. The earlier books in the series saw Troy becoming involved in many of the political dramas of the 1930s and 1940s, and this is not the first time that Guy Burgess, the notorious traitor and defector, has crossed his path. This instalment is not one of Lawton’s best, but it is still an exciting story with a fascinating premise.
In The Fire Court, Andrew Taylor adds more detail to the vivid but remarkably unappealing picture of London life in the 17th century he conjured up in his previous book, The Ashes of London. Things are in a mess, inevitably, in the months following the Great Fire, but other messes are simply part of life. This book would be salutary reading for anyone daft enough to wish they could go back in time, for Taylor is unflinching in his re-creation of the era. Women are property but have none, thugs administer violent punishment unchecked and painkillers have not been invented. The story carries on from The Ashes of London and will, I think, be quite hard to follow if you haven’t read its predecessor. Those who have will enjoy this instalment and be eager for the next one.
Aline Templeton writes cleverly plotted crime novels set in the world as we know it. Her characters speak and behave like real people, and while this may make her books more interesting than exciting, a large number of readers think this is a Good Thing. Human Face is set on the island of Skye. The township of Balnasheil lies between the sea and the mountains, which rise to their peak at the Black Cuillin. Residents form a suspicious, inward-looking community that does not welcome newcomers. Beatrice Lacey has settled on Skye to work for Human Face, a children’s charity run by her lover, Adam, but she hates the Hebrides and is beginning to wonder whether all Adam really wants is her money. And then an eastern European housekeeper disappears, the latest in a series, and the police are called in. This is a good story, scrupulously told.
Bernie Gunther has survived the Second World War and the various careers he has tried out since peace was restored, but wherever he goes and whatever he does, there is always something to drag his mind back to the worst years. In this episode, a slightly slapstick series of events results in him becoming claims adjuster for an insurance company. He is sent from Munich to Athens to investigate a claim relating to a sunken ship full of archaeological treasures. On discovering that the ship once belonged to a Greek Jew who had been deported to Auschwitz and killed there, Bernie comes to believe that the sinking was an act of vengeance. Not Jewish himself, he is haunted by guilt both as a survivor and as a German. He cannot forgive anyone, least of all himself, and his thoughts and actions enrich the thrilling narrative.
This spy story is by an author who ‘has worked for the British Government for the past ten years’. Of course, this careful phrase could mean that he was a driver or janitor, but he does write masterfully about the badlands of Beirut, suggesting that he knows what he is talking about – plots and counterplots, secret agents, ISIS, Hezbollah, the CIA and our own secret services. His hero is responsible for writing reports for British intelligence, but when his father is abducted by ISIS, he turns into a man of action. This is an interesting tale and a good read, but not quite as interesting or good as the over-the-top endorsements by other novelists might suggest. Printing praise from other writers is very fashionable, but I think it alienates as many readers as it persuades.
Dame Sue Black is professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology at the University of Dundee. As such she confronts death every day and has always been on good terms with ‘her’ – death is always female to Black. As a teenager she had a weekend job in a butcher’s shop and for five years spent every Saturday cutting up dead animals. It was a useful introduction to anatomy, about which, as a student and now as a professor, Black has always been passionate. She has worked at crime scenes and in warzones, believing that, as a forensic anthropologist, she can reconstruct through death the stories of lives. But her book is not entirely about her professional experiences. She writes about deaths in her family, the shortage of burial space, medical students’ use of artificial skeletons and the horrors she helped to unearth in the Balkans. Many crime fiction readers delight in the disgusting, the dark and the dangerous. Black’s reverence for human remains and her fearless intimacy with death in its many guises may well be a necessary antidote.