Don Winslow, who is the author of a monumental trilogy about the United States’ drugs war with Central American cartels and of some enchanting surfing novels set in California, returns in City on Fire to the kind of ‘down-and-out beach town’ on the East Coast where he grew up. Inspired by the Iliad, this is the first of three planned novels about the mobsters and racketeers whose stories he heard as a child. When Pam, the staggeringly beautiful girlfriend of a member of an Italian crime family, is taken by a feckless member of an Irish equivalent, the tricky peace between the two organisations disintegrates into all-out war. The story is told from the point of view of Danny Ryan, who is a typical Winslow hero: intelligent, loving, hurt and fundamentally a good man who is sometimes forced by circumstances or other people’s needs to do bad things. As the narrative progresses, Winslow makes clear the unavoidably tragic nature of gang life. A gangster may earn a bit and even climb the ladder and gain serious power, but he’ll eventually die, and before he gets to that point he will have lived in unending suspicion, not only of his enemies but also of his friends and family, wondering who might be planning to betray him, stab him in the back or take over as cock of the walk. This is a novel full of sadness.
This first novel, set in a hospital, addresses issues of medical ethics and end-of-life care. Doctors Julia and Rea, who have been friends since childhood, are rivals for a desirable research job. Julia gets it after some skulduggery, leaving Rea to take the dullest of all positions in the hospital’s community ward. An incredible breakthrough tempts Julia to circumvent all the rules, risking her career but possibly giving someone else the chance of life. Rea is soon investigating the aftermath of the experiment, putting herself and her friends at emotional and physical risk. The plot edges into melodrama and the legal aspects of the narrative could have done with more research, but the questions the novel raises should be part of the national conversation.
Stuart MacBride specialises in funny, horrifying crime novels, written with great verve and attention to some of the nastier details of his corpses. Here, he avoids stomach-churning scenes of brutality for a clever, disturbing story about a police officer with a terrible past and a hunt for a serial killer. Detective Sergeant Lucy McVeigh had a bad childhood and in the course of her work was forced to kill a man. Her superiors are insistent that she uses the psychological help on offer, which irritates her almost as much as her sidekick, DC Duncan Fraser, and the family of the man she killed, who will not leave her alone. Her force is trying to find and identify the ‘Bloodsmith’, a serial killer who murders his victims before eviscerating and exsanguinating them, removing the blood and organs for who knows what purpose. While this is going on, she is informed that a boy who killed at the age of eleven and was the subject of her dissertation is now out of prison on parole and needs her help. McVeigh is a great character, and as MacBride reveals details of what happened in her childhood and in her career, it becomes clear that nothing is going to be simple for her. As always, he writes with energy and colour. I suspect the ending may divide readers.
Insomnia is another novel with an unconventional ending. It tells the story of two sisters who were put into care after their mentally ill, insomniac mother did something terrible. They are now adults and at odds with each other. Emma has a successful career and is married with children, while Phoebe has a much harder life. Phoebe is still in touch with their mother, who is now in secure accommodation. Phoebe urges Emma to visit. When she does, she triggers a series of disastrous events that puts her entire family at risk. The conclusion may strike some as an elegant literary conceit. Others may be irritated by the irrationality, especially if they have invested emotionally in the excellently described characters.
Five hardworking young Chinese Americans plot to break into museums in the West in order to retrieve priceless artefacts looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing two hundred years ago and restore them to China. If they are caught, they will sacrifice the opportunities they have worked so hard for and ruin the dreams that drove their parents to leave China for new lives in the United States. On the other hand, if they succeed they will have done something enormous for the China that lives in their imaginations as a place of yearning. Reading the sections devoted to planning the heists, it seems strange that five such clever young people genuinely think they will get away with it, but there are plot twists to follow and the narrative broadens into a meditation on the morality of institutions ‘owning’ looted, stolen and smuggled artworks. The characters are alluring and the mixture of action and dreamlike descriptions of light and colour is engaging. So too are the emotional struggles the crew endure as they try to balance duty to family with their love for China and the need to understand their own personalities.
Deon Meyer’s recurring characters Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido of the South African police’s elite squad, the Hawks, have been disciplined and sent to work with the ordinary police in Stellenbosch. There they are ordered to investigate the disappearance of a college student and, later, that of a rich fraudster, Jasper Boonstra. By this stage, Meyer has already introduced his readers to the fraudster, who is trying to sell one of his many properties through a beautiful young estate agent. Like so many financially greedy men, Boonstra is also sexually voracious and believes the estate agent owes him for the commission she will earn from the sale of his property. She has other ideas. The two investigations merge and Griessel and Cupido fight their usual battles to get to the truth. Meyer handles the complicated plot with panache, bringing in both men’s private problems and relationships to create plenty of warmth.
Opening with a scene presented from the point of view of a fox licking the blood that has dripped from the bodies of two dying people skewered on the railings outside an Edinburgh house, this novel then tracks back in time to deal with the lifelong relationship between Tess and Sylvie. They met as schoolgirls and are still friends, in spite of shameful memories of adolescent misdeeds and adult rivalries. Sylvie has a good career at the Bar but is single and lives in a mess, while Tess is married and lives in an elegant house but has no career. When she is diagnosed with a serious illness, Tess wants to put right what the two of them did to a fellow pupil in the old days, setting in train the series of events that ends with the bodies on the railings. Tyce was herself a barrister and so avoids all the mistakes common among crime writers whose ‘knowledge’ of legal practice comes from American courtroom dramas. It Ends at Midnight offers an interesting examination of the damage adolescents can do, both to their victims and to themselves.
Erin Young has written successful historical novels as Robyn Young. This is her first crime novel and it’s a big, ambitious, angry story set in Iowa among the family farmers who are trying to make an increasingly uneconomical business work, to fight off the bullying tactics of Big Agriculture and to repair the damage done by Big Pharma. When a young woman is found dead in the cornfields with some peculiar injuries, the case is given to her old schoolmate Sergeant Riley Fisher. Like most fictional detectives, Riley has plenty of issues, which include a divorced, drug-taking brother who shares the family house with her. More bodies are found and suspicion falls on various people until Riley’s grit and refusal to back down lead her to the right answer. I am not qualified to comment on the science involved here, but in narrative terms it works well and the ultimate message that good intentions are no guarantee of a good outcome adds a sense of tragedy to the novel.
Michael Ridpath continues his series of Icelandic police procedurals with this story about the establishment of a new cryptocurrency, Thomocoin, and the suspicions and violence its development provokes. Dísa, a clever schoolgirl, is given some cryptocurrency by her father and discovers how easily she can make profits from it. When Thomocoins are offered to her, she can’t resist, hoping to make enough to save her family’s indebted farm, a day’s journey from Reykjavik. When murder is committed near the farm, Dísa’s story becomes entwined with that of the appealing, if troubled, Inspector Magnus Jonson. Ridpath, who has banking experience himself, makes the whole subject of cryptocurrencies, their pricing and their riskiness easy to understand and his illustration of the way life behind a screen can embolden the weak is highly topical.