When a thriller is written by a former commander of Special Branch it is hard not to believe it is based on some reality. But if this book provides an accurate portrait of the customs and behaviour within powerful state agencies, we should be depressed, frightened and outraged. Can public protection really be dependent on such officials? Pearce portrays most of the senior figures of MI5, MI6 and Scotland Yard as self-seeking, inept or treacherous. Even the best of them are addicted to the job, neurotics who never have time to sleep and who think that rules are for other people. Wiser, perhaps, to take Pearce’s story as 100 per cent made up. In it, the hero, DCI Kerr, and his small, hand-picked team carry out illegal and illicit operations that are justified by their purpose: to watch, follow and foil the fanatics who die to kill. But even foreign suicide bombers seem less urgent when there are home-grown traitors to identify. I hope this debut really is fiction.
Scorcher Kennedy, as the star detective of Dublin’s murder squad, is sent to investigate the deaths of two children and their father, and the wounding of their mother, who is now in intensive care. When he gets to Brianstown, Scorcher realises that it is the seaside resort formerly called Broken Harbour, where he spent his childhood holidays. The once-familiar caravan site had been turned into an ambitious housing development. But now all the occupants have been ruined by the recession and it has become almost a ghost town, half built and half abandoned. The detective’s own sad family history is revealed in parallel with a detailed portrait of the domestic behaviour of the victims and their neighbours, most of them out of work, their personal lives disintegrating along with their jerry-built, heavily mortgaged homes. Broken Harbour is a gripping story in an atmospheric setting by an author who knows how to grab the reader’s interest and never let it go. At first sight over 500 pages of small print seemed a bit much, but not a word of this densely written, long novel was superfluous – I would have been happy for it to be longer still.
Much of this book takes place in contemporary London – in fact on the Portobello Road – where its characters have suitably prosperous and trendy lives. The other main setting is a bizarre stately home, which is more appropriate for the rather gothic nature of the plot, the elements of melodrama in which are redeemed by the resourceful self-reliance of the imperilled heroine. Nicky, a journalist, gutsily frees herself from repeated dangers. Even though she, as protagonist, survives, the stage is strewn with corpses by the end of the action. The first is that of Nicky’s best friend Grace, who five years previously had been murdered on holiday in Greece; the book ends with a bravura exit for the character revealed as the baddie. The large cast and complicated happenings make an intriguing – if quite muddling – read, and Ali Knight writes well.
It’s not only the Istanbul setting that reminded me of Eric Ambler and Somerset Maugham; Joseph Kanon’s writing style – low key, pessimistic and in terse, undecorated English – could almost have come out of the early years of the twentieth rather than the twenty-first century. In fact, Istanbul Passage is set just after the end of the Second World War when Istanbul, a neutral city on the crossroads of Europe and Asia, has become the arena of refugees, conspirators and spies, all telling and living lies. The hero is an American businessman who spent the war on the fringes of the undercover world. At last about to escape from his involvement with espionage, he is trapped when his final assignment goes fatally wrong. He finds himself responsible for a fugitive who turns out to be a man who deserves no kindness, a former Romanian guilty of many wartime atrocities. Information about the sites and sights of Istanbul, and its complicated history, enrich Kanon’s compelling, evocative story.
Producing experience-based crime fiction is becoming an almost normal part of a forensic psychologist’s career path, especially for women. A J Cross is following in several colleagues’ footsteps as she uses her real-life professional experience to create a forensic psychologist heroine, Kate Hanson, a member of the official Unsolved Crime Unit. Equally familiar is the type of crime she’s investigating: the abduction, torture and murder of a series of young women. Kate’s emotional involvement with the case is exacerbated by the fact that she has a vulnerable teenage daughter. The story is intriguing and well written, occasionally illuminated by the author’s own voice. ‘The police generally fail to alert the media and thus the public of repeat sexual crimes … we all need to be aware of and take responsibility for our own protection.’
Like its predecessor Death in Bordeaux, this is both a literary novel and a thriller. Superintendant Lannes still concerns himself with ‘ordinary’ criminals, but nothing is very ordinary in the mad world of Vichy France. Yet even here, ‘there are days, even in the bad times, even in the worst of them, when you can still believe in the future.’ On one such day, Lannes’s son, arrested in the previous book, returns. ‘The bell rang and Dominique was there. Dominique, pale, wretchedly thin, exhausted, his hair cropped, but nevertheless Dominique. Lannes held him in his arms, neither able for a moment to speak.’ Dark Summer in Bordeaux is punctuated by moments of happiness and moments, almost equally valuable, of police routine. If ordinary, dogged daily work can’t keep one sane in a world that has gone mad and bad, at least Lannes can realise ‘what a comfort it is’. Perhaps that is the moral of the story.
Holt’s later work has been published in English to great acclaim; here, rather belatedly translated, is her first. Holt has worked for the Oslo police department, founded her own law firm, and served as Norway’s minister of justice, so she obviously knows what she’s writing about, and the more so in this book: it is set in a lawyers’ office and the Oslo police department, with constant oversight by the Ministry of Justice. The plot is quite a simple one, concerning the earnings of the drugs trade and those who secretly manipulate and profit from it. The characters are much more interesting, particularly two women some readers will have met before, the lawyer Karen Borg and the lesbian police officer Hanne Wilhelmsen, both brave, self-reliant and more vulnerable than they care to think. The book, published in 1999, is already very dated. Can it really be so very recently that we lived in a world where people were not dependent on their mobiles?
A first novel, translated from Spanish, set in the stifling heat of Barcelona in midsummer, introducing the fierce, sometimes violent Inspector Salgado. The story includes human trafficking, voodoo, the corruption of wealth and power, and sharp psychological insight – an encouraging start.
John Banville’s sixth crime novel. Like the others, it’s more interesting than exciting – in particular, its beautifully written and scrupulously characterised portrait of mid-twentieth-century Dublin.
The anti-hero Inspector Bordelli and the underside of Florentine and Sardinian life may not sound like a promising combination, but Vichi’s crime novels are enjoyable, mystifying and well worth reading. This one has won literary prizes in Italy.