I read this book in a wintry and wet Cornwall, and it made me think myself lucky, for the story is set in Florence during a fierce August heatwave. It’s a miracle that the protagonists can rush around in the unbearable discomfort of sweltering heat and humidity – described so that one really feels it – through the uncomfortable streets and cheerless homes in the neighbourhoods tourists don’t see. The story centres on a small, nearly defunct branch of an old-fashioned bank. The manager’s murdered body is found in Florence when he should be away at the seaside with his wife and children. The ex-cop turned PI Sandro Cellini is as uxorious and conscientious as ever. He and his wife find themselves taking responsibility for a heavily pregnant girl whose boyfriend has disappeared, and Sandro co-opts his former police partner to help in his searches. Several rather touching human stories animate the conventional investigation in this excellent novel.
Here is a new sub-genre of crime fiction. A teenager is accused of murder. A middle-aged and until this moment respected and successful parent, usually the father, is unable to come to terms with the idea that his child could have done it, and sets out to prove otherwise. It’s a harrowing scenario with which anyone who has a family must feel sympathy. But these books do not promise a happy ending. All three are well written and sensitive, with well-described characters and places, exciting courtroom scenes, and plenty of emotional shocks. Take your pick:
In The Good Father by Noah Hawley, a respected and confident doctor, Paul Allen, is watching a Democratic Party rally on TV when the candidate is shot dead, and his assassin’s face briefly caught on camera. It is Allen’s elder son by his first wife, a Vassar College drop-out who has changed his name and apparently his personality too. Can the good father go on loving the bad son, no matter what he’s done?
William Landay is being talked about as a new Scott Turow or John Grisham, having been one of Boston’s district attorneys. He is at home with both the processes of detection and courtroom scenes. Defending Jacob reads entirely convincingly, since its hero is also a district attorney, Andy Barber. Andy’s son, Jacob, is accused of stabbing one of his classmates to death in a Boston park. Andy is perfectly certain that his son is innocent. Yet, since Andy’s father is serving a life sentence for murder, and his grandfather was a professional assassin, belief in his son’s innocence wavers even as his determination to save his son doesn’t. The destruction of Andy’s comfortable family life is tragic to read, the anguish about his son even more so, in a taut, tense, well-written thriller.
Spilled Blood by Brian Freeman is set in a declining community in Minnesota, where teenagers run riot and violence and vandalism are part of everyday life. Three girls meet in a ghost town one night in order to play Russian roulette. The next morning one is dead, one is accused of killing her, and one has run away. Olivia, who denies shooting her former friend, has only one hope: calling her estranged and unknown father, a lawyer, to the rescue.
Police officers Lacey Flint and Mark Joesbury reappear in this gothic horror story set in a Cambridge college. A series of clever young women, away from home and unprotected for the first time in their lives, are forced to face their deepest and most secret fears before suffering ingenious (though tactfully and not too explicitly described) torture and death. It is hard to credit that twenty-three undergraduate suicides in five years would not have rung official alarm bells more quickly in the real world. In parallel with the creepy tale of terror and torture, however, we follow a scrupulous scientific investigation. The reader can tremble at the lavish supply of ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night, before waking up to an explanation sufficiently logical to satisfy cops and coroners.
Any contemporary gazetteer of the British Isles should include the particular crime series that goes with each region. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast and Portsmouth are among those towns that have become familiar settings for police procedurals and here, in her first novel, Mari Hannah stakes her claim to Newcastle. A series of apparently unconnected killings is being investigated by a team led by Detective Inspector Kate Daniels, who has been having an affair with the female psychologist employed to profile criminals. Daniels is still haunted by an unsolved murder when she is appointed to investigate another murder case. She gets herself into more trouble still by making the dangerous decision not to mention that she knew the victim. The story is not altogether easy to follow, with a large cast variously referred to by first name or surname alone, but it is well-told nonetheless: a promising start to a planned series.
The cosy, country murder is still alive and well, supplying the needs of the traditional crime fiction enthusiast but seldom noticed in print, partly because few copies are sent out for review. The familiar pleasures of murder and mayhem in a pretty village may not be in fashion, but they are going strong in series such as Rebecca Tope’s, which is set in the Cotswolds. Her amateur detective heroine is a house-sitter whose profession provides an endless supply of trips to sinister places where pretty soon a murder is sure to take place. Well told, enjoyable, and not, in fact, all that cosy.
The triangular white mountains that make central Cornwall look like a creepy moonscape are no more than industrial archaeology and a tourism trail now, the relics of a once thriving trade in china clay. This characteristically scrupulous and measured tale begins in the last days of the industry in the late Sixties, when a local boy gets involved with the son and daughter of one of the pit-owning families. The narrative jumps forward to the mid-Eighties and then to the present day, each episode bringing new deaths and mysteries until all is explained neatly, fairly and with no ends left loose in the last chapter. The story, which moves between Cornwall and Capri, is credible, low-key and rather sad: crime fiction for grown-ups.
Here’s something of an oddity: a novel by a Finnish writer featuring a police inspector who is one of the only two Jewish policeman in Finland, investigating the killing of two Arabs in Helsinki. His work is complicated by the fact that an Israeli minister is about to make an unofficial visit to Finland, inevitably with the Finnish police and representatives of Mossad involved. Beneath it all runs Inspector Ariel Kafka’s awareness that this occurs just before the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s an interesting plot told in an entertaining, straightforward style by a welcome new voice.
A secret agent, retired in disgrace, is called back to work and ordered to track down the woman who is about to take over as head of MI6. Has Amelia Levene defected or been kidnapped? No: as rapidly becomes clear, she has taken off on a private mission. We come to realise that for anyone in her position, there can be no privacy, since personal secrets are incompatible with a spy’s life. An intelligent and engaging novel though oddly – considering its subject – low-key and lacking in tension.