Anna Bailey, who comes from Bristol, spent some time living in a small town in America and has based her first novel there. The fact that everyone has guns increases the danger involved in rivalries of the kind that are common in many small towns. Here seventeen-year-old Emma leaves her best friend, Abigail, at a party in the woods and never sees her again. Abigail’s home life is so appalling that many in the town assume she has run away, but plenty of others believe someone has killed her. As the police investigate and the various families involved deal with the issues her disappearance has highlighted, we get to learn more about the bigotry, ignorance, violence and cruelty that make the place such a nightmare. Bailey brings Abigail’s tormented family alive. The only aspect of this fast-paced and moving novel that is not quite so convincing is the way Emma’s mother has dealt with her own trauma.
Helen and Rory are the children of a celebrated architect who have married friends they met at Cambridge. Both Helen and her sister-in-law, Serena, are pregnant, Helen after four tragic miscarriages. Into Helen’s antenatal class comes a younger woman who makes friends with her and then behaves more like a stalker, even forcing her way into Helen’s house, claiming she’s been hurt and needs somewhere to stay for a few days. Suspicions of all kinds build in Helen’s mind as she battles with the difficulties of her risky pregnancy. The prose is easy, Helen’s life is all too obviously hellish and the slow realisation of what is actually happening keeps you reading. This is an entertaining tale of close-knit, well-off smug marrieds discovering that they are not going to have everything they expect in life and that not everyone will get away scot-free.
Ballet demands self-discipline, the strength of an elite athlete and the grace of a butterfly. In Erin Kelly’s latest novel, Ava Kirilova is prima ballerina at the fictional London Russian Ballet and daughter of its owner and director, Nikolai Kirilov. They are about to embark on a world tour with his interpretation of Swan Lake, in which Ava will dance the parts of Odette and Odile. Nikolai terrorises all his dancers in order to make them give their best and infantilises them at the same time. Rivalries are intense and dangerous, and someone has to die. This is a twisty, emotional, intriguing account of minds and bodies under supreme stress and it asks a familiar question: is precise technical accuracy more important than individuality of interpretation?
The Old Enemy brings back the characters Henry Porter introduced in the brilliant Firefly (2018). The topical plot deals with Russian nerve poison and the infiltration of American society by characters who once operated behind the Iron Curtain and now have vast assets to shelter. Many of the people who have worked with Denis and Anastasia Hisami and ex-MI6 officer Paul Samson are assassinated. Samson has to find out why and by whom. The story is complex and the sense of danger spreading across the world gives it urgency. Revelations relating to Denis Hisami’s past add emotional weight, while a love affair sprinkles charm over the grimness.
Set in an expensive resort town in the Hamptons, this enormous novel deals with the shooting of four people in 1994. Twenty years later, Jesse Rosenberg, one of the original detectives on the case, is on the point of taking early retirement from the police when a journalist tells him they got the wrong man. So begins Jesse’s journey back through the original files and the memories of all the surviving residents. On the way he reveals not only his own agonising past but also secrets about the unhappy families whose lives have been affected by the shooting. Joël Dicker, whose earlier novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was nominated for the Prix Goncourt, is based in Geneva but has spent summers in New England and offers a convincing, if over-long portrait of the place and its damaged, secretive inhabitants.
August Drummond has been sacked from his position in the British intelligence service. We meet him first in reports from a fellow officer and then, drunk and distressed, on a flight to Istanbul to take up a new job. On the plane he sees a young Englishman behaving oddly a few rows ahead of him and makes surreptitious contact, which leads him into a violent, sometimes farcical and sometimes horrifying plot. August’s body comes in for as much punishment as his mind, and it soon becomes clear not only that he is cleverer than all the people trying to get him but also that his activities cannot end happily. This is a well-informed novel that reveals quite how unglamorous the world of international espionage really is. The compromises and the cruelties necessary in dealing with unsavoury regimes mean that few people can keep their hands clean. While the mixture of dishonesty and incompetence on show gives little comfort, James Wolff weaves into his ingenious plot one strand that offers enough warmth and redemption to stave off terminal depression.
Opening with an attempted suicide on Clifton Suspension Bridge, Two Wrongs addresses serious problems faced by some undergraduates. One is the gross abuse of power by concupiscent academics intent on seducing their students. It is not illegal and the students are over the age of consent, but, as Mel McGrath clearly demonstrates, intense damage can be done. To balance this, she offers the story of Honor, a lovely character who is poor, hippyish and fighting for her daughter’s happiness. The novel is strongest when dealing realistically with the abuse and less convincing when it ramps up the drama with violence.
Set in Glasgow in the 1970s, when the IRA was bombing targets all over mainland Britain, The April Dead opens with a detective, Harry McCoy, being sent to investigate an explosion in a poor area of the city. He drinks and smokes, in spite of being diagnosed with an ulcer. He hates the sight of blood and is protective of a junior colleague, Wattie, a new father who doubts his own capabilities. Together they follow the clues, distracted by the appearance of a retired American naval captain in search of his lost son, who had been serving on a base at Holy Loch. Naturally the two cases are linked and the hunt takes McCoy deep into some horrible secrets. The political background is all too credible, even if the primary villain seems a little over the top.
Alan Judd takes us into a very different world from his usual one of contemporary spies. Here he offers the imagined confession of Thomas Phelippes, the linguist and cryptographer who worked with Sir Francis Walsingham and was famous for his part in breaking open the Babington Plot, which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Judd has Phelippes in prison, answering questions put to him on behalf of the new king, James I. He tells us of his work for Walsingham, of his (apparently wholly imaginary) dealings with Christopher Marlowe and of how Marlowe came to be murdered in Deptford. On the way, Judd presents us with a horribly vivid account of a prisoner being racked. He also offers many insights into Elizabethan thought and history and gives Phelippes an appealing personality, besides providing a wonderful description of what we would now call a ‘flow state’: ‘Once I was grappling with a cipher, when I was properly in it and my mathematical imagination engaged, I felt I was in a purer realm. It was as if God had lifted me out of time, purged me of earthly considerations and granted me a glimpse of that truth and beauty of which Plato writes.’
This achingly sad novel takes the perennial theme of a missing child and makes something unfamiliar from it. Chloe is twenty-nine and living in Peterborough with her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. She has to contend with social services’ determination to move her grandmother to a care home, the fees of which she must raise by selling the house. She works as a junior archivist on the local paper, and when her grandmother goes missing she finds herself fending off her boss’s efforts to sack her for taking too much time off. As Chloe scans and files the paper’s old cuttings she becomes intrigued by the story of Angie, who went missing from a neighbouring park when she was four years old and whose parents are still waiting for her return. Chloe is convinced that she can find out what happened to Angie and, perhaps, restore her to her parents. The account of Chloe’s search, which is punctuated by visits to her grandmother in the care home, raises suspicions that are almost unbearable and provide efficient misdirection from the impending twist.