Dee is an experienced nanny who has been employed to look after the children of visiting academics in Oxford. She has no family, few friends and a difficult past. The novel opens with her telling the police how she came to be caring for eight-year-old Felicity, who has disappeared. Tracking back in time to Dee’s first encounter with the child’s father, Nick Law, the newly appointed master of an Oxford college, Lucy Atkins leads us into a nightmare of family dysfunction. Felicity’s mother is dead and Nick is now married to a Danish woman, Mariah, who is pregnant and who finds her stepdaughter unbearably frustrating. Felicity is selectively mute, occasionally talking to her father but no one else, and clearly disturbed. The account of Dee gradually gaining the child’s trust is beautifully done and punctuated with scenes from Dee’s friendship with an eccentric and possibly dangerous loner. Revelations are provided at key moments, swaying our sympathies one way and then another. Grown-up and cleverly written, Magpie Lane leaves us with a dizzying sense of uncertainty about the right home for those sympathies.
The Last Protector, the fourth in Andrew Taylor’s series of Restoration crime novels, sees the deposed dictator Richard Cromwell (son of Oliver) in urgent need of money to fund his exile. His situation brings him into the orbits of both Cat Hakesby (née Lovell) and James Marwood, whose relationship involves secrets, work and much yearning on both sides. Cat is now married to the elderly Simon Hakesby, grateful for his protection but resentful of his age and the unexpected demands he makes upon her, while Marwood works for the king and his officials. As usual, the two of them soon find themselves in the greatest danger but their ingenuity and collaboration bring them safely home.
Taylor is so at ease with the period that the political manoeuvrings of his characters are as entertaining as his jokes. At one moment the wicked Duke of Buckingham can be found mocking a sermon in which an earnest divine announces that a ‘lewd woman is a sinful temptation, her eyes are the snares of Satan, and her flesh is the mousetrap of iniquity’. There is colour, violence, devotion, courage and fun here. What more could anyone ask of a crime novel?
Holly Watt’s first novel, To the Lions, won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and this, her second, is even better. Once again investigative journalist Casey Benedict, who works for a London newspaper, is on the scent of a shocking crime and crosses the world – at great physical risk to herself – to get the evidence she needs to print the truth and hold the bad guys up to public revulsion. This time the first hints come to her courtesy of the paper’s fashion editor, who has discovered pleas for help hidden in clothes shipped from Bangladesh. As in Watt’s first novel, the scandal concerns the self-absorption of rich Westerners, who think satisfying their own needs is more important than the survival of any poor foreigner. For me the details of Benedict’s life as a crusading journalist are more interesting than the episodes of derring-do, but this novel has something for everyone – including a romance that is not remotely sickly.
Ex-boxer and practising barrister Tony Kent knows all about conflict and deploys his knowledge with confidence in this, his third thriller. This time he takes us from London to the United States and Afghanistan while also bringing back characters from earlier novels. The action begins when a bomb explodes on a transatlantic flight, killing all 534 passengers, who include Senator Dale Victor, a US presidential candidate. Barrister Michael Devlin becomes involved when terrified Nizar Mansour, a Syrian refugee, flings himself into a London police station and confesses to planting the bomb. Kent puts his knowledge of the intricacies of the British legal system and the prison service to good use as he tracks Mansour’s journey through the innumerable hazards that threaten him. At the same time, Devlin’s old friend Joe Dempsey of the International Security Bureau is commissioned to find out who might have wanted to kill the senator and why. The story is told from many points of view, including that of Devlin’s girlfriend, an American journalist working in London, and it moves fast. The ultimate revelation is a little hard to swallow, but the journey there is exciting and fun, and sometimes seriously shocking.
Another investigative journalist features in The Cutting Place, Jane Casey’s ninth Maeve Kerrigan novel. Kerrigan is a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, and the journalist in question, Paige Hargreaves, is found dismembered on the muddy shore of the Thames in London. Naturally Kerrigan and her colleagues find out what Hargreaves was trying to investigate. Kerrigan’s search leads her to a revolting men’s club, whose members are all rich, more or less immoral and bound to each other by enforced loyalty. The picture of male depravity is not diluted by accounts of Kerrigan’s latest relationship. She has a close and long-standing friendship with her immediate superior, Josh Derwent, but at the moment her life is taken up with the exercise- and diet-obsessed Seth, who is trying to reform her way of life. Tracking down Hargreaves’s killer and the various malefactors of the Chiron Club, as well as sorting out her own relationships, gives Kerrigan plenty to do and keeps the reader with her throughout this novel. A little more perspective might have been added by the inclusion of a character who is both enormously rich and virtuous, but there is no doubt that the idea that the rich are all ghastly will resonate with many readers.
Opening and ending on the frozen island of South Georgia in the Atlantic, The Split deals with trauma, murder, mistrust and extreme pain, and yet Sharon Bolton manages to make the novel extremely entertaining. Dr Felicity Lloyd is a glaciologist, based in Cambridge but working with the British Antarctic Survey on South Georgia. In the extended flashback that forms most of the novel, we learn that she was the victim of an unexplained accident in Cambridge, which left her wounded but ignorant of what happened. Aware that she has serious memory problems, she turns to psychologist Joe Grant for help. We learn what is happening in her brain as she and Joe attempt to uncover the past, with Bolton providing plenty of blind alleys and wrong turns to heighten the tension. Much of the section set in Cambridge deals with the homeless, reminding us that those who are seen by passers-by are merely the tip of that particular iceberg. All the misery in the novel is balanced by evidence of generosity and warmth in those characters who have relationships that work.
Snow and ice also provide the background to Ragnar Jónasson’s latest exploration of trauma and hardship in Iceland. Detective Hulda Hermansdóttir is fighting sexism at work and trying to manage a difficult marriage at home. Relations with her silent and unhappy daughter give her terrible grief and her mother drives her nuts. She has two main cases to deal with in this novel: the disappearance of a footloose student and the unexplained deaths of two adults on an isolated farm in the east of the island. The hardness of farming life is made abundantly clear in the flashbacks to the life of the dead couple, and it seems hard to imagine how anyone living in the countryside could survive Iceland’s harsh winters. Throughout the novel, the characters’ wilful refusal to face reality is both exasperating and credible.
In her last novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, Sarah Vaughan used a rape trial to explore attitudes to women and their sexuality. Here she moves on to another area in which everyone feels free to criticise any woman perceived as falling short. Four friends who first met at antenatal classes continue to see each other, even though their eldest children are all now eight. One, Jess, has had a third baby and is the only mother to stay at home. Liz is a paediatrician, Mel a teacher and Charlotte, who only has one child in spite of much IVF, a lawyer. Jess is tormented by thoughts of all the things that could harm her children, and her anxieties and sleeplessness have pushed her terrifyingly close to the edge. When she takes Betsey, her toddler, to A&E after a dangerous fall, the cause of which is unclear, Liz is the first to treat her and tries to find out what really happened. All the women are affected by their own early experiences and all feel a terrible mistrust of themselves. Painful and realistic, this is a novel that should be read by everyone planning to have a child so that they can get some idea of the magnitude of the physical and emotional challenges they will face.