This is the story of an American spy written by an American spy. The experiences of Charles McCarry’s long career as an undercover CIA officer have enriched his novels, some of which, I think, add up to the best spy series ever published. This book is a stand-alone thriller in which a young graduate is recruited, trained and sent to live under deep cover in China. He is supposed to be merely learning Mandarin, until events overtake him and he becomes the eyes and ears of his enigmatic boss. The plot twists and turns like the most complicated puzzle, while the settings of Shanghai and Washington are described without illusions. ‘America was askew’ after 9/11, and this ‘end of specialness was somebody’s fault … coming home to this country on the brink of a nervous breakdown was like waking from a coma and seeing two moons in the sky’. Gripping, informative, in many ways rather sad – but an excellent thriller.
This novel continues the long, detailed Inspector Lynley series. Its hero is a police officer who also happens to be a millionaire landowner and an earl. The anti-heroine is his favourite sergeant, a messy, uneducated but clever cockney. Elizabeth George uses more than seven hundred closely printed pages to tell the story of a tug-of-love case, in which a good father arranges for bad things to happen to his daughter in order to save her from the worse fate of being taken away to live with her mother. The mixture of melodrama and the everyday doesn’t always blend very well and the sustained note of hysteria underlying the normally sensible behaviour of Sergeant Barbara Havers became exhausting, her preoccupations inevitably a little repetitive in this very long book. Some pruning might have been to its benefit. But George is a skilful and justifiably popular writer, and no doubt her passionate fans will delight in every word of this sprawling saga.
A terrorist has planted a dirty bomb outside the Bank of England and it explodes with devastating effect. The authorities quarantine all the victims of radiation in camps, but otherwise dither: the economy collapses, law and order disappear, and white supremacists confront other racially organised gangs and terrorise citizens. Meanwhile there is an unlimited supply of brainwashed young Muslims who believe paradise awaits those who slaughter the infidel. More suicide bombs will follow unless the fundamentalists can be found and stopped. Joseph Clyde is the pseudonym of George Walden, a former diplomat and government minister. Perhaps it takes this kind of pedigree to write a book that is so daringly politically incorrect in its take on religion and race. It’s also exciting, horrific and poignant.
This is a little gem of a crime novel. The story is based on the notorious murder of a woman in north London in 1946, which was still being talked about twenty years later when Siân Busby was growing up in the same neighbourhood. She wrote this book while she was undergoing treatment for cancer, and it was not quite finished when she died. It has been edited and completed by her husband, the BBC journalist Robert Peston. Credible characters are sympathetically described and the preoccupations and miseries of daily life during that period of extreme deprivation are evoked with vivid clarity. But there is – not surprisingly – a sad undercurrent: ‘There had to be some reason to keep going. There were tears in his eyes as he closed them, and tried so hard to imagine a better future.’
Pliny the Younger, a character known to history through the survival of his letters to the Emperor Trajan, has newly arrived in the Roman province of Bithynia (now central northern Turkey). As governor, Pliny is omnipotent but – unlike his predecessors – he is also an honest and efficient administrator who refuses to follow the imperial tradition of enriching himself by appropriating local treasures. Equally unusual is his love for his wife, the childless Calpurnia. But he doesn’t have that much time for her, particularly once he has to identify the murderer of a rich Roman official and the murder’s connection to the secret and illegal cult of Mithras. Pliny is equally mystified by the change in Calpurnia. Bored and lonely, she gets involved with the least suitable man she can find, and inevitably becomes entangled with her husband’s investigation. This is an enjoyable addition to the sub-genre of ancient Roman mystery fiction.
A New York couple decide to make a new life in Texas. Mike becomes the chief of police in a small town called Clairmont; meanwhile Emily awaits the birth of their first baby and tries to fit in with the social life of glossy and manicured wives of rich men. It’s a group that her husband’s position requires her to join. But no sooner has she done so than the gang leader, a local matriarch who keeps tight control of her acolytes, disappears. Emily starts investigating with as little caution as the ‘had I but known’ heroines of mid-20th-century thrillers, because she’s confident that her husband will gallop to the rescue every time. The story carries a message about the long-lasting effect of rape on its victim and everyone she knows. It’s still – alas – worth saying.
In a snowbound valley high in the Pyrenees a cable car takes workers 2,000 feet up to a hydroelectric plant. Not far away is an institute for forensic psychiatry where the most vicious and irredeemable killers are housed. When a pedigree horse and then a local man are found mutilated and decapitated on the cable car, France’s rival officials swoop in to catch the murderer. There is the local head of the gendarmerie, a captain from a research unit, a public prosecutor and the juge d’instruction. Meanwhile, up at the institute, nurses, psychiatrists, doctors, a visiting psychologist and above all the criminal inmates all seem to be behaving very oddly. Down in the valley the local mayor and villagers also have something to hide. This long, densely written and very atmospheric thriller is Minier’s first novel. It has been a bestseller in France and, in this well-translated English edition, deserves to be one here.
The sixth mystery by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) set in 1950s Dublin and featuring the pathologist Quirke. Always a good read, these stories may seem even better when they are shown later this year on BBC One.
A new case for Wexford, now old, retired and ruminative but still full of insight and running whimsical rings around his down-to-earth friend and professional successor, Mike Burden.
The first in a trilogy that begins in Paris at the Peace Conference of 1919. A former flying ace is sure his father’s death was no accident (as the gendarmerie insists) and is determined to find out the truth. Historically interesting and an emotional cliff-hanger.