The Most Difficult Thing opens with a woman called Anna walking out of the life she has lived with her husband and twin daughters after receiving instructions from her shadowy controller, Harry. This kind of occurrence must have long interested the author, who is a granddaughter of Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies who fled to Russia in 1963. After Anna’s departure from her London house, the focus moves back and forth between her recruitment by Harry, her childhood and her married life with David, heir to an international businessman of apparently limitless resources and dubious connections.
An experienced broadsheet and magazine journalist, Philby writes well. The novel roams around appealingly, taking in Hampstead, the Greek islands and the Maldives, but the plot could be both clearer and crisper. The doubts and misunderstandings Anna endures may well be typical of someone living a life of deception, but her naivety and malleability do not always convince. The ending is left wide open, which suggests there is a sequel to come. It will be interesting to see where Philby takes her story.
Cyrus Haven is a psychologist who has been invited to a secure unit to observe one of the young female inmates, Evie Cormac. Evie, who recently broke someone’s jaw with a brick, has a terrible and tragic past, about which she will not speak. All the authorities know is that she was discovered, emaciated and filthy, in a hidden space in a house where a man had been tortured to death. No one knows her real name or age. At the same time Cyrus is helping the local police investigate the murder (and possible rape) of a young figure skater.
Narrated in the present tense from the points of view of both Cyrus and Evie, this is an extraordinary exploration of emotional damage and the difficulty any psychologist has in interpreting the available clues. Cyrus is empathetic and warm, in spite of his own difficulties, but makes many mistakes with regard to both Evie and the murder investigation. Nevertheless, he is dogged in his efforts to understand the source of suffering and to help. With humour and humanity, Michael Robotham has written one of the best crime novels of the year.
Adrian McKinty’s best-known novels are those in his award-winning Sean Duffy series, set in Northern Ireland, where he was born. Now he has turned his attention to the USA with a high-concept thriller inspired by the old chain-letter scam that used to terrify children. In The Chain it is not letters the victims are required to provide in order to avoid unspecified disaster but kidnapped children. Each parent whose child is taken is instructed to pay a ransom in Bitcoin and kidnap another child, passing on the instructions to that child’s parents. Only when the newly recruited adult has taken another child captive and paid the ransom will the first kidnapped child be released. One mother, Rachel, is tempted to break the chain.
The plot is clever, the present-tense narrative is straightforwardly effective and there are plenty of references to Moby-Dick, existentialism and the Ouroboros. But in spite of Rachel’s courage and all the grief and terror that the parents experience, there is a coldness at the heart of this novel.
Jenna has escaped the sink estate where she grew up and now enjoys a successful career. She is engaged to a handsome, rich young widower named Robert. She loves him and his daughter, Emily, but is daunted by his ultra-conventional and controlling father. So far so Cinderella, but On My Life is more interesting than any fairy-tale romance. Jenna, who helps her impoverished mother and sister whenever she can, arrives home one day to find Emily dead and covered in blood. Robert is missing and traces of his blood are found near the body. Jenna is arrested and sent on remand to a notorious women’s prison. Protesting her innocence, and determined to find someone to collect evidence against Robert’s brutal father, she has to get to grips with the realities of prison life. Well researched and shocking, this is both a gripping thriller and an indictment of prison policy.
Set in Baltimore in the 1960s, Lady in the Lake deals with the frustrations of women who long to escape family life and do something on their own. Cleo has left her two young boys with her own parents but ends up dead. Maddie Morgenstern Schwartz leaves her husband at the age of thirty-seven to pursue a career in journalism and has a passionate but detached love affair with a black police officer. She starts to investigate Cleo’s death, in the teeth of everyone’s disapproval. Judith, who is Jewish like Maddie, is working for her brother and planning to escape her home. Tessie, desperate to buy an exciting bra of which her mother will disapprove, stumbles into the ambit of a killer. All the women face misogyny and racism and, with few role models, have to plan their own routes out of submission to family, religion and the convenience of lying so as to not ruffle feathers. Life for women has probably changed more in the last half-century than at any other time and Lippman’s intelligent, multi-voiced novel gives a good picture of the courage needed to break out of the straitjacket of inoffensiveness and duty.
The game at the heart of this novel centres on the spying establishment, who must keep their allies happy, their enemies contained and their political masters satisfied. Jake Winter is an intelligence officer from the North, sent to London to deal with threats from Islamist terrorists. In Jake’s first operation, he believes his source is taking part in a rehearsal for a major bombing rather than the real thing. When everything goes wrong, the government sets up a public inquiry. Jake must give evidence, even as he is grooming another source to find out what really happened and why. Attending the inquiry every day are Mr and Mrs Masoud, whose son and granddaughter were killed in the bombing.
The narrative moves between the Masouds, Jake, his new source and sundry members of the US and UK intelligence communities. The pace is measured and there is much reflection about guilt and morality. In one chapter there is an almost Socratic dialogue between Jake and Mrs Masoud. The book as a whole adds up to a serious and engaging meditation on how a society can be kept safe when so many compromises must be made, when there is no way an agent runner can tell whether a source is reliable or not except by using his or her judgement, and when the public have to be protected from knowing too much as well as from terrorists. Jake is a great character and his own story is moving as well as interesting.
Shari Lapena’s fourth novel opens with the murder of a woman in her kitchen in New York’s Hudson Valley. The murder scene is described in the first person, without any indication of the narrator’s identity. Police suspicion naturally lights on the dead woman’s husband, but there are plenty of other candidates in the gossipy suburban community. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of Olivia, a neighbour of the dead woman and the mother of a teenager, Raleigh, who has a dangerous habit of breaking into local houses and hacking into their owners’ computers. As all the neighbours reconsider the people they thought they knew, secrets are winkled out, relationships break down and, eventually, the culprit is revealed. The style is pleasantly chatty and the emotional dilemmas are realistic.
Luca d’Andrea introduced us to the difficulties and drama of life in the Italian Tyrol in his first novel, The Mountain. Now, in Sanctuary, which is set in the late 1970s, he takes us even more deeply into that world. Marlene cannot bear her life as the wife of a Second World War collaborator who has made a fortune through organised crime. She breaks into his safe to steal a bag of sapphires to finance a new life. Her vengeful husband pays to have her found and killed, but the search is harder than expected. Marlene crashes her car over the side of a mountain road and finds refuge with a Bau’r, a tough, compassionate, solitary mountain man. In his isolated, poverty-stricken house, the two find a way to live together until Marlene regains enough strength to attempt the journey back to civilisation. The killer’s race to find her brings excitement, but it is the relationship between Marlene and the Bau’r that creates the greatest tension. Full of folklore and history as well as descriptions of astonishing hardship, Sanctuary is also a study of character and what happens to people’s minds when they have to find a way to make sense of intolerable circumstances.