Natasha Cooper

April 2019 Crime Round-up

  • Samuel Bjørk (Translated by Charlotte Barslund), 
  • Peter Swanson, 
  • Linda Green, 
  • Annie Ward, 
  • Donna Leon, 
  • Laila Lalami, 
  • Penny Hancock, 
  • Linda Fairstein, 
  • Mike Ripley

The Boy in the Headlights

By Samuel Bjørk (Translated by Charlotte Barslund)

Doubleday 384pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Samuel Bjørk is the pseudonym of Frode Sander Oien, a playwright and singer-songwriter who brings real emotional intelligence to his crime fiction. His investigative team is led by Holger Munch (now divorced and father of a woman seriously injured in the course of a previous investigation and now disabled) and includes Mia Krüger (battling the temptations of alcohol, drugs and self-harm as she struggles to deal with the suicide of her twin sister a decade ago and the subsequent death of their parents) and Anette Goli, a lawyer, who is the most stable of them all. Other members of the team have their own problems, and loyalties become strained in this, their third outing.

The case concerns one of Norway’s rare serial killers. As Holger tells the reader, most murders are committed on the spur of the moment and perpetrators are easy enough to identify, but these are pre-planned and brutal. The team soon discovers that the unknown killer has a list of fifty targets, apparently selected without reason. Norwegian landscape and culture are vividly rendered as the investigation continues, as is the damage done to children by parental selfishness and addiction. The translation is clear, but I found myself wishing I could have read the novel in the original language.

Before She Knew Him

By Peter Swanson

Faber & Faber 320pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Hen, an artist with a history of mental illness and a track record of making false accusations, moves in next door to Matthew, who gets to sleep at night by telling himself a favourite story of how ‘he’d driven down to New Jersey and murdered Bob Shirley…’ Hen and Matthew meet at a neighbourhood block party they attend with their spouses and begin to socialise. Peter Swanson describes their separate histories and the quartet’s developing relationship in quiet and civilised prose, which makes the growing horror he reveals even creepier than it might have been in the hands of a more graphic writer. This is a sophisticated and intelligent exploration of fractured minds.

The Last Thing She Told Me

By Linda Green

Quercus Books 416pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Linda Green uses the stories of four generations of women to explore the ways in which society blames and shames victims of sexual crimes. Her first-person narrator is Nicola, whose dying grandmother begs her to ‘look after my babies’, telling her that they are at the bottom of the garden. When Nicola tries to find out more, her mother refuses to talk to her and breaks off relations, just as she had with Nicola’s grandmother. Nicola’s two daughters become involved when the younger finds a tiny bone in the garden.

Nicola and her plumber husband, James, are portrayed as intelligent modern parents dealing with the fallout of explosive family revelations. Most of the investigation is convincing, although the final clue is delivered a little too conveniently. Green injects genuine suspense into the novel and exposes the full horror of the abusive relationships behind this familial dysfunction, making the important point that the effects of shame can be almost more destructive than the original crime. But at no stage do any of the women in the novel even try to teach their young daughters that it is empowering to keep control of yourself, your body, your sexuality and your fertility. The patronising ‘Book Club Questions’ at the end also ignore that possibility. It seems a sad omission in an otherwise important exploration of the abuse of women.

Beautiful Bad

By Annie Ward

Quercus Books 400pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

The opening of Annie Ward’s first novel suggests that this is going to be a familiar story of a woman with possible mental health issues being bullied by an unsympathetic husband, but what follows is unexpected. The narrative is divided between the present, when Maddie is searching the internet for a suitable therapist to deal with her many anxieties, and 2001, when she was teaching English in the Balkans. People there were still reeling from the wars of the 1990s and her best friend, Jo, was working with refugees in nearby Macedonia, where Maddie often visited her. They both met and liked Ian, a British mercenary, but it was Maddie who married him, had a child with him and moved home to the USA.

The action begins when Maddie calls the police. The operator at the other end hears sounds of terror and violence before the phone goes dead. What follows takes us backwards and forwards, revealing aspects of the friendship between the two women that are both shocking and convincing. With its wide canvas and its complicated emotional twists and turns, this is an interesting contribution to the genre of domestic noir.

Unto Us a Son is Given

By Donna Leon

William Heinemann 272pp £20 order from our bookshop

Venice is full of tourists who infuriate the locals, including Commissario Guido Brunetti. His rich, aristocratic father-in-law’s best friend, a gay Spanish art expert, is proposing to adopt a much younger man and leave him his fortune. Brunetti’s father-in-law and the rest of the art dealer’s circle are all worried about this plan. Brunetti reluctantly agrees to make a few enquiries. Well over halfway through the novel, someone is murdered and Brunetti takes charge of the investigation in a surprisingly lackadaisical way, though police procedure has never been a strong feature of this charming series. It is a pleasure to spend time with Brunetti, his academic wife, Paola, and their children as they eat delicious food and drink good wine. And Venice never spoils on the page, where the hordes of tourists are only a footnote.

The Other Americans

By Laila Lalami

Bloomsbury Circus 320pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

I Thought I Knew You

By Penny Hancock

Mantle 400pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

‘Women never lie about rape’: this is an article of faith for Holly, something she teaches in all her university consent workshops, until her sixteen-year-old son is accused of this very crime by the thirteen-year-old daughter of her best friend. The ramifications of the accusation are devastating and far-reaching for the small village where both families live. The friends’ marriages come under strain, allegations and counter-allegations are flung in all directions and it seems unlikely that everyone involved will survive. This is a great example of ‘grip-lit’, where the narrative pull is strong. Once again there is a patronising list of questions designed for book group readers at the end of the novel and a touch of Hollywood about the denouement that detracts from the reality of the preceding emotional battles.

Blood Oath

By Linda Fairstein

Little, Brown 368pp £20.99 order from our bookshop

Now that court time is taken up with more sexual abuse cases than ever before, it is instructive to read this novel by an erstwhile head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in New York. The recurring protagonist in Linda Fairstein’s series is Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper. In this adventure she is confronted with a damaged young woman accusing a powerful lawyer of having raped her when she was a child witness in one of his cases. The investigation that follows culminates in more physical drama than is entirely believable, but it adds entertainment to a novel that has serious points to make about those who violently abuse minors.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from ‘Casino Royale’ to ‘The Eagle Has Landed’

By Mike Ripley

HarperCollins 448pp £20 order from our bookshop

Crime writer and critic Mike Ripley grew up revelling in the thrillers published in the postwar decades and has now produced a guide to their authors, some of them still familiar, others, such as the brilliant and funny Adam Diment, more or less forgotten. Ripley shows how the loss of Britain’s empire fed the genre of heroic men saving the world from the forces of evil. He gives details of the dazzling sums of money stars such as Alistair MacLean and Robert Ludlum earned, but he avoids revealing whether or not they made similar fortunes for their publishers, which would have been interesting to know.

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