The Cover Wife by Dan Fesperman; The Dark by Emma Haughton; A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris; 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard; The Turnout by Megan Abbott; Hell and High Water by Christian Unge (Translated from Swedish by George Goulding & Sarah de Senarclens); 1979 by Val McDermid; A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins; Rider on the Rain by Sébastien Japrisot (Translated from French by Linda Coverdale) - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

August 2021 Crime Round-up

  • Dan Fesperman, 
  • Emma Haughton, 
  • Joanne Harris, 
  • Catherine Ryan Howard, 
  • Megan Abbott, 
  • Christian Unge (Translated from Swedish by George Goulding & Sarah de Senarclens), 
  • Val McDermid, 
  • Paula Hawkins, 
  • Sébastien Japrisot (Translated from French by Linda Coverdale)
 

The Cover Wife

By Dan Fesperman

Head of Zeus 336pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

It’s 1999, and an efficient but underestimated CIA operative, Claire Saylor, is instructed to act as the wife of an American academic on a tour of Europe to promote his possibly inflammatory book about Islam. At the same time, jihadists in Germany are trying to decide whether a newcomer to their group is trustworthy enough to be included in their unspecified plans. As the narrative switches between the two strands of this story, Claire realises that there is more to her assignment than she realised and that her colleagues and seniors have been less than straight with her. The two strands meet and she does her best to circumvent the internal rivalries, find some important information and pass it on to those who might be able to deal with it. Fesperman’s authoritative and shocking novel is about the price paid by those who have no control over the intelligence they collect and about the private and public failures of those who do have control.

The Dark

By Emma Haughton

Hodder & Stoughton 384pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

This is a thoroughly modern version of the old locked-room mystery, with the room in question being an Antarctic research station during the winter season. No one can get on or off the ice until spring. Kate arrives on the last flight in as a replacement for the station’s doctor, who died in an accident. She finds everything about her new job hard, from the cold and dark to the less than sympathetic characters among the international team she’s joined. There are also questions about exactly how and why her predecessor died. Kate has her own issues, too, and she needs all her courage and stubbornness to see her through medical emergencies, the machinations of a killer and the vulnerabilities of her own mind. Exciting and involving, this has the makings of a classic thriller.

A Narrow Door

By Joanne Harris

Orion 448pp £20 order from our bookshop

This two-handed standalone novel, set partly in 2006, deals with memory, the fears it brings, the psychological tactics our brains use to shield us from it and the stories all of us tell to explain what we cannot know. Part of the novel is narrated by the classics master at St Oswald’s, once a boys’ grammar school and now a co-educational academy. Some of his favourite pupils have discovered a body in the school grounds, where a new building is under construction. Years earlier, Conrad, a pupil at the neighbouring King Henry’s school, disappeared and is presumed dead. The other part is narrated by Conrad’s sister, Rebecca, who was five at the time of his disappearance. Now head of St Oswald’s, she must decide whether to report the body’s discovery to the police. Gradually she tells her story to the elderly classics master, showing how hard it has been for her, a terrified pleaser, to deal with the trauma and its aftermath. Her strategies for survival are slowly revealed. Clever and disturbing, this is a highly unusual account of a murder and its investigation.

56 Days

By Catherine Ryan Howard

Corvus 432pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This story opens at the start of the Covid-19 crisis. Something has happened in one of the flats in a swanky new block in Dublin. Residents have been disturbed by yet another false fire alarm but realise there’s more to it when they see police attending the site. The narrative then swings back to fifty-six days earlier, before reverting to the present and the discovery of a body. Fifty-six days ago, a young woman and a young man met in a supermarket and became close. What looks at first sight like the story of a sex offender stalking a potential victim becomes something much more interesting. Catherine Ryan Howard takes on one of the most disturbing types of crime we know about and treats it with both intelligence and sensitivity.

The Turnout

By Megan Abbott

Virago 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Two sisters have inherited their mother’s small ballet school and the house in which they grew up. The elder is married to Charlie, who was their mother’s favourite pupil but has had so many injuries that he can no longer dance and instead deals with all the administration. The three of them are engaged in preparations for the annual production of The Nutcracker when a fire in the upper storeys of the dancing school means that they have to hire a builder, whose activities stir up memories and emotions that threaten everyone’s stability. With plenty of detail about the training of dancers and the jealousy felt by those who fail to get the star parts, this is a novel full of adolescent sexuality, bullying, sibling rivalry and abuse of all sorts. In ballet the boundary between stringent training and cruelty can be hard to navigate, as can the lines of responsibility when it comes to disasters and crimes. This is a most uncomfortable novel.

Hell and High Water

By Christian Unge (Translated from Swedish by George Goulding & Sarah de Senarclens)

MacLehose 432pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The pains and triumphs of young doctors have been the subject of some of the most popular non-fiction works of recent years. The author of this book is a senior physician at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, and he has used his experiences to write a gripping crime novel. Dr Tekla Berg is working in A & E, overseen by consultant Tariq Moussawi, when she has to deal simultaneously with a desperately ill child, whose parents are yelling at her, and a young man on the point of death after a stabbing. Tekla is a terrific character: brave, exhausted, surviving on very little food and sleep and taking uppers and downers to keep going. She has a photographic memory, which helps with diagnoses but causes problems in her personal life. Both her difficult parents are dead and she feels responsible for her hopeless, probably criminal brother. The chief executive of the hospital will do more or less anything to get hold of the funds the hospital needs, while the Uzbeks and Albanians who run the brothels and deal drugs in the city fight for supremacy and customers. Tekla becomes a target for the gangs when she is put in charge of patients suffering the effects of an appalling fire, including a terribly burned man. He cannot be identified and she becomes afraid that he might be her brother. Hell and High Water is fast-moving and packed with convincing detail and memorable characters.

1979

By Val McDermid

Little, Brown 432pp £20 order from our bookshop

The start of a new series by Val McDermid is always an event. Here, she has drawn on her own early career in journalism to create Allie Burns, an appealing Cambridge graduate who feels ill at ease with her family and many of her colleagues at the Daily Clarion in Glasgow. The world she has joined is full of racism, sexism and homophobia, and its physical spaces are fogged and smelly with cigarette smoke. The one thing about which Allie has no doubts is her own talent, but she needs to make her bosses give her credit for it. In the words of Danny, who becomes a close friend, ‘The trouble with you, Burns, is you want to win all the time.’ In the search for stories to prove her worth, she comes upon a group planning a terrorist outrage. At the same time, Danny needs her help to rewrite a report about a tax-evasion scheme used by various rich Scottish businessmen. Together they stir up plenty of trouble and wrestle with difficulties in their personal lives. Diligently researched and interesting in its exploration of Scottish politics and the moral dilemmas inherent in tabloid journalism, the novel really takes off when Allie discovers a body late on.

A Slow Fire Burning

By Paula Hawkins

Doubleday 320pp £20 order from our bookshop

Paula Hawkins’s first crime novel, The Girl on the Train, broke records of all kinds with its account of the ultimate vindication of a woman whose life had collapsed into chaos. In this, her third novel, a writer’s literary agent explains, ‘Women love crime! ... They enjoy the catharsis of victimhood.’ Whether or not this depressing analysis is true, Hawkins provides plenty of victims here, but none is as irritating as the girl on the train. Miriam, who lives on a houseboat on a canal in north London, suffered an appalling trauma as a child and still has plenty of problems; Daniel, who is lodging on another canal boat, has a tragic past and a difficult present; Laura, the obvious suspect in a fatal stabbing, has physical and psychological problems caused by an accident in which a car threw her off her bike when she was a schoolgirl; Carla and Theo have never got over the death of their toddler son when he was being cared for by Carla’s sister, Angela; Irene, Angela’s delightful next-door neighbour, is still mourning her late husband and dealing with everyone’s assumption that she is not only frail but also losing it mentally because she’s old. Coincidences bring all these characters together in a complicated set of events, and Hawkins arouses our sympathies for almost each one in turn. Warm, engaging and touching, this well-written novel works on many different levels.

Rider on the Rain

By Sébastien Japrisot (Translated from French by Linda Coverdale)

Gallic Books 208pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

First published in 1992, this novel by an award-winning writer and translator of J D Salinger is a magnificent example of style and brevity. It begins with Mellie, a traditional ‘housewife’ whose full name is Mélancolie, watching a strange-looking man getting off a bus in the pouring rain in the south of France. Coincidence and bad luck lead her into first terror and physical assault and then a race to destroy evidence that could ruin her life. Small details about her current marriage and past life contribute to a convincing portrait while the sense of impending horror adds tension. Sébastien Japrisot shows what can be done in a few words by someone who knows how to manipulate them to best effect.

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