I have enjoyed Imogen Robertson’s earlier books – a series of post-Georgette Heyer adventures of an anachronistically independent woman and an unworldly scientist – without taking them too seriously. The Paris Winter is in another class altogether. It tells the story of Maud, a middle-class English girl with a passion for art, who manages to escape the limitations of a northern town and get herself to Paris, where she signs on as a student at the Académie. Penniless and starving, she is rescued by the French woman who models at life classes, and by another student, an immensely rich Russian girl. They help her to find a job as a companion to a beautiful opium addict. It all seems too good to be true, and so it is – as Maud discovers when she gets involved with theft, attempted murder and other crimes. The vivid description of life in the belle époque – whether of the rich upper classes and their servants; or students, artists and members of the Parisian underworld – the plausible plot, and a sensitive understanding of art and artists make this a fascinating novel, which I read in a single sitting and admired greatly.
This is an offbeat and slightly surreal Parisian mystery in which an eccentric cop investigates the disappearance of a young woman. Commander Camille Verhoefen, the detective hero, is a victim of his mother’s smoking during pregnancy and has never grown taller than 4’ 11”. Always ready for a fight, he is driven and brilliant, and like all the best police detectives, insubordinate and disorganised. He has nothing to go on: no suspect, no other leads. First the detective must learn something about the woman; readers, however, already know quite a lot. As Camille slowly uncovers the story of the girl’s unusual background, he comes to realise she is not some ordinary victim but exceptionally beautiful, tough, resourceful and unconventional in the extreme. A warmly recommended read, even though it contains some details that I had to skip.
David Lindholm, the most famous police officer in Sweden, is found murdered in his bed. His four-year-old son has vanished without a trace. His wife Julia, protesting her innocence and babbling about a female intruder, is immediately arrested. News reporter Annika Bengtzon has been dumped by her husband and forced out of her home after an arson attack. The consequences of those two dramatically life-changing events are a little underplayed, as Annika, left with nothing but the loan of a dead colleague’s laptop, applies herself obsessively to investigating David’s death. She makes the unwelcome discovery that the popular hero had feet of clay. This is a cleverly plotted story which, like so much Swedish crime fiction, features situations and characters one can believe in or sympathise with and is set firmly in contemporary society.
Although situated in present-day Glasgow, this, the latest in a series of police procedurals, harks back to an earlier era of crime fiction. The police officers are benevolent and conscientious; they are happily married and get on well with their colleagues. In descriptions of the crime scenes we are spared explicit details. There is no sign of violence or corruption, even in Barlinnie Prison. It’s always possible that this is as credible a portrait of crime investigation in Scotland as the more familiar litanies of unscrupulousness and savagery. I enjoyed reading about these well-meaning officers and caring, candid witnesses, as Detective Superintendent Lorimer, his concerned wife and his psychologist friend Solly Brightman investigate the murder of a beautiful, rich Swedish student. Alex Gray describes her characters with sensitivity and the investigations in careful detail. It would be nice to believe the picture she paints. Lifelike though it all is, swallowing it whole is a step too far.
Set in Glasgow in the winter of 1947, the coldest ever recorded, this excellent thriller begins with members of the city’s Jewish community asking Douglas Brodie to find the perpetrator of a series of burglaries. Brodie is now a journalist, having been a policeman before the war and a lieutenant colonel during it. His dreams are haunted by memories of the horrors he has seen in Germany; he knows only too well what the Jewish refugees packed into Glasgow have suffered. It becomes apparent that some high-ranking Nazis who have escaped justice are living in disguise in Glasgow, stopping off on their way to America. Someone is helping them to evade justice. Brodie finds himself back in uniform, flying to Hamburg to observe the trials of Nazi war criminals, before returning to Scotland in order to identify the disguised fugitives. It’s all tragic – as any story based on the mass murder of Europe’s Jews must be – but also gripping. This novel is a new variety of the fashionable ‘Scottish noir’. It’s also a real page-turner.
This is a welcome return to the familiar territory of ancient Rome. Lindsey Davis has retired her good old Falco and his wife Helena, and brought Flavia Alba, their adopted daughter, forward to start a new generation of ‘informers’ (private detectives). Born in the remote and savage province of Britannia, Alba is a young widow and as such permitted to live without the protection of a man. She has taken advantage of a freedom unusual for women and moved into Falco’s former office, where she fights to carry on her business as an informer in the face of male obstruction and other women’s distrust. Writing in the first person, Alba describes herself as ‘ready for anything, expecting nothing good’. We follow her as a series of apparently healthy young men and women succumb to what seems to be natural deaths. But this is no longer the well-run city of Alba’s youth. Under a new, paranoid emperor ‘Romans were marinaded in suspicion’ and fearful – which makes an excellent background for this enjoyable mystery.
Christopher Fowler, who is the author of the highly original Bryant and May series of detective novels, recently criticised what he called ‘doorstops of unrelenting grimness’ – enormous volumes of sadistic violence, advertised as ‘grittily realistic’ crime fiction. How right he is. After being bombarded with crime novels that are nasty, brutish and long – some more than 500 pages – it’s a relief to turn to shorter, more subtle books such as Henry Sutton’s clever spin on his own profession of crime writing. ‘I need not just to incorporate more blood but to describe someone dying, and gruesomely, in the first few pages … if I have any chance of getting the thing published,’ his hero, David Slavitt, observes. Slavitt is a gentle, absent-minded crime writer, who lives in dread of being dropped by his publisher and agent. Constantly distracted by housework and childminding, his book is going nowhere as he tries to insert the brutal violence his agent insists the market demands. Then real life and real crime catch up with him and his clever wife. Sutton’s writing is witty and original, and he is spot-on in his analysis of the job and genre.