The first edition of the first crime novel by the pseudonymous Robert Galbraith, like most crime fiction, attracted little attention and had puny sales. The rave-reviewed second edition, published after Galbraith’s mask had been torn off to reveal J K Rowling, was a worldwide bestseller. The Silkworm is the next instalment. It has received almost universal, and invariably respectful, coverage, which says more about the author than the book, enjoyable though it is. The hero, Cormoran Strike, is a Cornishman (I especially like his connection with the exact, remote spot in Cornwall that means most to me), illegitimate son of a pop star, crippled army veteran and private eye. His resourceful assistant makes an attractive heroine. The book includes a portrait of a particular section of literary London – amusingly catty and apparently heartfelt and written from experience. These ‘writers are a savage breed … who will glory in your every failure’. Never mind that the novel is too long and its plot, a revenger’s tragedy, unconvincing; few readers can put Rowling’s books down, and I certainly couldn’t. The good news is that there are five more in this series to come.
Why are successful novelists so glum about their profession? Here is another bestselling author’s pessimistic exposé of the life of a crime writer – or rather, several crime writers: John Houston, who is the richest novelist in the world, and the team of men and women, all unsuccessful authors, who actually do his writing. Houston lives in Monte Carlo (which is described with eloquent loathing); when his wife is found dead he is suspected of murdering her. The narrator, one of the hack writers, is a former army officer who served in Northern Ireland and also Houston’s oldest friend. He helps him to get away before neatly turning the tables on his former boss. There is a good deal of disillusioned discussion of writing and writers (though the subject, according to Houston, is of absolutely no interest to readers), and a lot of even more disillusioned references to Cornwall, where Kerr once lived – one must suppose unhappily. Readable, but not a patch on the Bernie Gunther series.
I have enjoyed Michael Robotham’s previous novels featuring a London-based psychiatrist and amateur detective, so was a little disappointed to discover that Life or Death is set in Texas and seems to be on a familiar subject: the awfulness of the American penal system and the story of an inmate who was wrongly convicted. How wrong I was. This novel is highly original. It tells the story of Audie Palmer, who has served a long prison sentence but, on the day before he is due to be released, escapes. He was originally convicted for his part in an armed robbery in which four people died. The money was never recovered. For ten years Audie has been beaten and bullied by inmates and guards wanting to know where the money is hidden, and once he goes missing it is presumed that he intends to retrieve the loot. He is hunted by officialdom and criminals. In fact, Audie is neither running nor hiding, but trying to save a life. It is exciting to discover whose life it is that needs saving, as the complicated plot twists and turns. In a preface Robotham tells us that this is ‘the book that I was MEANT to write’. He could be right.
The days are over when readers were shocked by fiction exposing the miserable boredom suffered by the mothers of small children and new babies. I remember when Celia Fremlin and Elizabeth Ferrars (and, as it happens, I) were criticised for suggesting, via our novels, that motherhood wasn’t enough. Now in the post-Women’s Lib era, there is a whole subgenre of psychological thrillers, invariably by female writers, based on the frustrations of new, but not so young, mothers. Harriet Lane uses this familiar subject with great skill. Emma has given up her career and is a full-time mother, always late, in the wrong clothes and struggling. She meets and befriends a neighbour called Nina, childless, sophisticated and always in control. The tension increases as, in alternate chapters, we follow scatty, well-meaning Emma and sly, mendacious Nina to the latter’s long-planned, vengeful and dramatic conclusion. Her is a subtle, clever, low-key thriller.
Kick Lannigan was abducted from her Seattle home aged six and used to make child-pornography films. She was not rescued for five years. Now aged twenty-one, she has trained as a martial-arts expert. Her ambition is to find and rescue other abducted children. Kick is a loner, but is induced to work with a mystery man who is convinced that she knows where kidnap victims are kept but must first make herself remember – which, of course, she does in the end. This is the first book in a new series, and the first by Chelsea Cain that I have mentioned here for a long time, since I am too wimpish to read the graphic torture scenes that almost seem her trademark. There is only one of them (more than enough) in this book, which is otherwise both clever and exciting.
This is one of those crime novels that is as instructive as it is perplexing, using a well-plotted mystery to give a detailed account of a part of London a lot of Londoners don’t know. In the borough of Tottenham people don’t disguise their allegiances: Hasidic Jews, black-clad and with their hair in ringlets; belligerent Islamic youths; and Rex Tracey, a reporter on the local newspaper and an amateur sleuth. He is investigating the deaths at a picnic in Finsbury Park of a whole Jewish family, parents and children together. The trail takes him into every community, each of which is vividly and sympathetically described. Immigrants of every race and creed seem to have settled in this borough and the author reveals, through Rex, that he knows a good deal about them all. This is an enjoyable detective novel, which, in the end, exposes the guilty party to be, in time-honoured fashion, the least likely character in the cast.
It is four years since Ruth’s daughter was murdered. Ruth takes custody of her orphaned granddaughter, gives her as normal a life as she can and tries to exorcise her hatred of the killer by writing to him. Letters to My Daughter’s Killer is an immensely subtle, sad and gripping tale, beautifully written.
Charles Thoroughgood returns, now chief of MI6 (which has been exiled to Croydon), and married to his predecessor’s ex-wife. He is confronted by widespread cyber-attacks that disrupt all public services. His wife is kidnapped. A nuclear-missile-carrying submarine goes missing. Told by an insider, this is an exciting thriller in the Buchan tradition.
Here is yet another crime novel full of writers, and yet more exposure of their plight. Set at a literary festival, evidently described from bitter experience, Fest is a traditional, not to say old-fashioned murder mystery, with an amateur sleuth interrogating witnesses, red herrings, and neatly disguised clues culminating with a gathering of suspects to expose a satisfyingly unexpected culprit.