Three stories are told in parallel. Noi, his wife and their teenage son return to Iceland from a home swap holiday in the USA to find their house a mess, with unwashed dishes and laundry, the wrong sheets on their bed and the cat litter box overflowing. Using the camera he installed in their weekend cabin, Noi can see that it is just as bad there. Our attention shifts to a junior police officer called Nina, who has been sent to sort out archived files. She is distracted by thoughts of her husband, who, after a suicide attempt, is lying unconscious in hospital. Can she bring herself to agree to switch off the machines? The most exciting and atmospheric of the stories concerns three men and a woman who are delivered by helicopter to a pillar of rock out to sea. On it there is a lighthouse and nothing else. Fog sets in and the helicopter cannot pick them up; they have none of the requisite gear and very little food. Things quickly turn nasty. The three separate stories are gradually and skilfully merged together and bring this readable, enjoyable thriller to a melodramatic finale.
Colombia, Korea, Florida, London and an RAF base in Cornwall are only some of the places where a British ex-commando, now on loan to MI6, does his heroic stuff. There are kidnappings, torture scenes, guns and bombs. Given that the author is the BBC’s security correspondent, I take for granted the accuracy of the places described and the likeliness of the action and the violence perpetrated. Gardner obviously has an up-to-the-minute understanding of contemporary warfare and he is also a very good writer. This is a thrilling adventure that shows brave men doing brave things, but it’s all a bit too macho for my liking.
Fiona Griffiths, now promoted to detective sergeant, is an interesting heroine but in real life would seem so insubordinate and eccentric that her police career would be very short. She behaves like a private eye, not only when she takes off without a companion or permission to act on her own brainwaves, but also in the way she picks and chooses which official procedures to use and which to ignore. Her commitment is always total, leading her to do things that are brave but foolhardy for a police officer. This is the fifth novel featuring Fiona, and her superior officers now seem resigned to working with this clever maverick and her big ideas. In this book she deals with the mysterious disappearance of a Russian heiress and a cold case concerning a young woman who went missing a decade previously. The unwinding of a clever plot is interesting and the depiction of unfamiliar men – monks, hermits, police officers – masterly. I enjoy reading about Fiona Griffiths but can’t say that I believe in her.
In her ninth novel featuring Commissaire Adamsberg and his eccentric crew of Parisian investigators, Fred Vargas weaves another convoluted plot crammed with quirky characters and unexpected historical nuggets. Adamsberg unpicks the connections between two apparently unrelated investigations, the deaths of a group of tourists trapped on an Icelandic islet and the murders of historical reconstructionists who have been replaying Robespierre’s greatest hits. Fans of Vargas will find familiar pleasures, but there aren’t many surprises; what was once bracingly strange is beginning to taste a bit stale.
The setting is the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, which are under British administration and have a senior British diplomat as governor; the author was head of the governor’s office there for two years, so writes about the place with authority. Her fictional governor is injured in a car crash and Jess Turner, her leave from the Foreign Office cancelled, is sent to hold the fort. It sounds like an idyllic assignment, but this Eden is full of serpents. Boatloads of illegal migrants from Haiti, voodoo practitioners, people smugglers, treasure hunters and an undisciplined office staff would be trouble enough without a major crime to investigate – and then there is a hurricane, an emergency to trump all others. This book, published by an authors’ collective, is a competent crime novel and, as a portrait of a small country far away of which I knew nothing, a fascinating one.
For many years a thriller set in a concentration camp would have seemed in the worst possible taste; but the taboo was broken some time ago, and if anyone is entitled to use Auschwitz in crime fiction it must surely be Andrew Gross, who is Jewish himself and has a Polish-Jewish father-in-law whose whole family was murdered in the Holocaust. He invents a Jewish physicist whose expertise is vital to the development of the Bomb. A young American serviceman, a refugee, is sent to get him out and away, which means breaking into the concentration camp and breaking out again. The research is meticulous and the horror of the setting carefully and (if it is possible in this context) tastefully evoked.
Told in an unemphatic, almost gentle narrative style, this is in fact an excellent example of ‘Domestic Noir’. Set in Ireland, the book begins with the murder of a young woman by a highly respected judge and his ladylike wife. They bury the body, disguise the grave by making it part of their famous garden and return to life as normal – which is actually highly abnormal. The judge’s wife is a recluse and their son is grotesquely fat, which makes him reclusive too. But he is also intelligent; he is promoted regularly in his menial clerk’s job and is very sharp when it comes to interpreting human behaviour. As he ventures out into the world he gradually makes friends, gets thinner, finds a girlfriend and then an even better one. But what is he to do about his possessive mother? Or what is his possessive mother to do about a son who wants to leave her? This macabre tale did not seem promising when I opened it. But excitement and curiosity mount until you realise you can’t put the book down. Highly recommended.
Simon Brett, the former president of the Detection Club, has edited this jeu d’esprit by fourteen of its members. As a member myself I should declare an interest but, having taken no part in creating this successor to the prewar The Floating Admiral, I feel free to say that it is pleasantly anarchic, totally unreal and a rattling good read.