Philip Oakes

February 2006 Crime Round-up

  • Simon Brett (ed), 
  • Laura Wilson, 
  • Jonathan Gash, 
  • Guy Walters, 
  • Tom Harper, 
  • Robert B Parker

The Detection Collection

By Simon Brett (ed)

Orion 195pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

Twelve-tale anthology to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Detection Club, whose membership (say the members) comprise the cream of British crime-writing talents. Charitable to assume, then, that not all the contributors are on their top form here, but excellent stories by Margaret Yorke, Reginald Hill, P D James and, especially, John Harvey, who weighs in with a moody piece featuring jazz- and sandwich-loving detective Resnick, now living domestically with ex-colleague Lynn Kellogg, but dangerously stirred by his encounter with an older, out-of-order love. Editor Simon Brett offers no story of his own but contributes a history of the Detection Club, whose last significant step to move with the times seems to have been to expand the membership from pure whodunit writers to include writers ‘who created detectives, secret service agents or other chief characters’. That happened in the late Sixties. Time to take another giant step perhaps.

A Thousand Lies

By Laura Wilson

Orion 337pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Desolate but compelling novel of child abuse which grabs the reader’s attention and hangs on to it while miseries multiply far beyond the compass of your average crime fiction. Wilson’s protagonists are mostly injured people, damaged by life, marriage, and their own inadequacy. Their innocence has not protected them. Amy Vaughan, divorced, unhappy investigative journo, writing for posh papers on social topics (‘a 3,000 word enquiry into the continued effectiveness of ASBOs’), revisits her past when her mother – who subjected her to the sick-child inventions of Munchausen’s by proxy to keep the love of her errant husband, George – dies of cancer; and while cleaning out her flat Amy finds an album of family photographs featuring the brutal sadist Leslie Shand, who imposed a reign of terror, beatings and rape on his wife and two daughters before being executed with his own shotgun. There is also a letter and a newspaper cutting, and, suspecting that they may be related (and hoping for more information), Amy takes them to the elderly Iris Shand – Leslie’s widow – who now lives bemusedly in a care home. She offers no revelations, but Amy tracks down her daughter, Sheila, who was given a suspended sentence for murdering her father, and encounters more secrets and more subterfuge, including the identities of a woman and a child whose skeletons are found buried in the woods near the Shand family home.

Unexpectedly, Amy’s father, the charming and rascally George, appears without warning at her door, and instantly she is enmeshed in another style of family fiction. Lies breed more lies. Is it possible to recognise or identify the truth when it is eventually revealed? Wilson handles a painful and difficult theme with sensitivity, courage and tact. She has both the appetite and the instinct for truffling through the hidden past and sifting it for secrets, with most of the action set in that tarnished patch of countryside north of Barnet, where gentrification has planted its plastic hoof and ranch-style bungalows squat beside Jacobean des res. Her prose is unvarnished. She is untouched by nostalgia and her account of the family rapist’s sexual career (mostly consigned to a journal kept by the young and anguished Sheila) is unflinching, simple and tragic.

The affable George, sipping his brandy, puffing his cigars and winding up with a rich and loving mistress is given a much easier ride. But his lies, it is implied, were not the only ones to fatally wound the marriage. It is not blame which Wilson wants to nail down, but the truth of the matter. Nothing else will do.

A Thousand Lies is in no way a documentary, although its cruel happenings are planted in what looks like familiar ground. Leslie, the family rapist, is criminal kin to the real life and notorious Fred West, who committed multiple rapes and murders and took his own life before facing trial for his crimes. It is unlikely that we will ever know the full horror of what he did and his villainy has now taken on the contours of legend. Laura Wilson describes a similar blending of fact and fiction in which lies are tolerated as the ingredient which helps the medicine goes down. I’m sure that this was a hard book to write. It is not an easy one to read. But it is triumphantly worthwhile.

Finding Davey

By Jonathan Gash

Allison & Busby 332pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Six-year-old British tourist Davey Charleston, holidaying in the US with his parents, is snatched from Florida theme park by agents of American kidnap company acting for rich, childless couple who crave instant family of their own. Kidnappers guarantee to brainwash Davey within a few weeks so that no memory of his past life remains. They reckon without Davey’s widowed grandfather, antique furniture expert Bray Charleston, who vows to find and rescue his grandson before the brainwash is effective. Elaborate game plan involving bestselling children’s book derived from Davey’s fantasies, now calculated to trigger buried memories with the help of Bray’s task force comprising an autistic computer genius, a retired cop and a cosy, retired publisher’s editor. Slightly overcrowded plot, but involving, engaging and powered by a big, generous heart. Gash demonstrates yet again what a versatile, beguiling writer he is. Clearly there’s a rich, full life beyond Lovejoy.

The Colditz Legacy

By Guy Walters

Headline 320pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Gripping, ingenious two-part spy story beginning in wartime Germany where British officers, four-square Hugh Hartley and slightly crazed Malcolm Royce, escape from infamous Oflag IVc - Colditz Castle – and make it as far as the Swiss border, where unlucky Royce is shot in the leg. Reluctantly, Hartley crosses the border alone, leaving Royce to Nazi pursuers. Thirty-four years later Hartley, now a spymaster for MI6, and running agents in East Germany, receives a tip that Royce is still alive and behind bars again at Colditz (now in use as a lunatic asylum) as a mental patient. Conscience-stricken and blaming himself for his comrade’s incarceration, he hatches a plan to liberate Royce and bring him home. Cold War horrors in the German Democratic Republic unveiled as Hartley puts his spycraft to the test and, inevitably, winds up in chokey. Exciting and ironic climax with history almost repeating itself. Clear, compelling storyline, traditional in style and respectfully reminiscent of Le Carré’s bleak adventures. But very much its own book, and true to its code of espionage grimly clinging to the rags of honour.

Knights of the Cross

By Tom Harper

Century 370pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

Weighty, worthwhile historical whodunit (the second in a trilogy) concerning murder committed by some renegade member of the vast Christian army of the First Crusade, laying siege to the city of Antioch in the summer of 1098. Clever, cultivated Greek, Demetrios Askiates, is assigned to find out who killed a Norman knight found with his back scarred by a huge cross. More murders and mutilations before the killer is revealed. Scholarly but speedy narrative, steeped in medieval horrors ranging from flogging to famine, all anchored in what feels like a passion for history and spelling out the way things were.

School Days

By Robert B Parker

No Exit Press 295pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Private eye Spenser – minus hard man Hawk, and even without the sumptuous Susan Silverman, temporarily away lecturing at a shrinks’ conference – accepts commission from local grand dame Lilly Ellsworth to determine whether or not her grandson was one of two youths wearing ski masks who gunned down seven people at Dowling Academy, Massachusetts – and, if so, why? One of Parker’s minor pieces, with minimal action, dodgy detection and much too much emphasis on what a macho man our hero is, fancied by every female on the scene. Point taken. No more bragging; just be grateful.

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