Philip Oakes, who wrote this column for nearly twenty years, is a hard act to follow. Not only did he come out top in a review of reviewers in CADS (a specialist crime and detection magazine), which called him 'unfailingly open-minded, witty, perceptive' and 'a national institution', but he was also a published poet. For some unexplained reason, there is a strong connection between crime and poetry; writers of both include C Day Lewis (aka Nicholas Blake), George Macbeth and David Harsent, and now the Whitbread poetry prizewinner Michael Symmons Roberts, whose first novel is a sinister tale of crime in contemporary Britain.
Patrick’s Alphabet opens with an ambulance-chasing photographer called Perry Scholes taking pictures of a teenage couple in the car where they were murdered, with the letter A painted nearby. Perry is obsessed with cars and death, his mission in life to record the two together. He listens in to police radios, and races to car crashes and crime scenes to snatch close-up images, his lense acting as his shield: 'If you put the camera down you are face to face with reality.'
The story of suspects, manhunt, further victims and a terrorised community has a constant undertone of anxiety and pessimism. The setting is the dreary wasteland on an urban outskirt, where buildings survive the rise and fall of many a human project but will eventually cave in 'because the wilderness cannot be tamed for long'. Perry wants to show people that these edge lands are beautiful, so that they 'stop driving through with their minds closed', just as, two centuries ago mountains seemed ugly and evil until the romantic poets changed conventional sensibilities. I can't see this contemporary poet's highly unromantic first novel having a similar effect, but it is crafty, sad and haunting.
The third outing for this post-Holmes, pre-Marlowe private eye. Ostensibly a 'flapper' of a pre-feminist era, Maisie Dobbs is a delightful character cleverly designed to appeal to a post-feminist audience without overstepping the bounds of historical possibility in her role as a 'psychologist and private investigator' in London in 1930. Like all the best detectives, she is equipped with the inevitable devoted stooge – a fatherly Cockney called Billy – plus an Indian guru, a know-all mentor and string-pulling patrons who paid for her education and now give her a home in Mayfair with servants and her own snazzy MG.
Maisie runs several cases at once, two concerning men recorded as 'missing believed killed' whose relatives belatedly need to find out exactly what happened. The search and solutions depend heavily on coincidence and - in breach of one of mystery fiction's strictest rules - on the supernatural. Fair enough for Maisie to rely on the automatic interpretation of signals not consciously observed (otherwise known as feminine intuition), but it is cheating for sleuths to depend on 'feeling' a fact or a 'warning chill'. Worth reading all the same, less for the plot, than the people, places and general period ambience, all persuasively evoked (though the word debrief was not used till 1945). The war's long shadow over Maisie and her clients and suspects lends emotional depth to an enjoyable mystery.
Masters of disguise are a convention of stage and spy fiction but seldom a realistic one, so it is hard to believe in a villain who can change himself so that his nearest (there are no dearest) do not know him. This wily Oriental gentleman has appeared in Reg Gadney's previous books, but first time readers will flounder in the wake of the self-styled ‘citizen of the world’. He is first encountered as a Buddhist monk in Greece, then as the elegant Dr Pereira lunching with her personal banker in Luxembourg, next a 'sleek Oriental woman' known as Mitsouko Furyawa moving into a five-star hotel. All are incarnations of a shape-shifting sadist called Klaas-Pieter Terajima who is chasing and chased by Alan Rosslyn, a private eye. The story alternates between them in terse episodes, and takes in many different parts of the world and a disparate cast of Russian oligarchs, Greek monks, London crooks, Hong Kong bankers and secret servants. The story was quite hard to follow but the pervasive knowingness about wealth and power, and corruption and theft, made this novel irresistably gripping. It ends not with a resolution but on a cliffhanger: to be continued in Gadney's next?
The famous American poet Kirsten Waller has retreated to write in a cottage on a Cornish cliff top. When she is found dead, electrocuted in the bath, the verdict is suicide. The immediate echoes of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, evoked by the combination of American women, poetry and suicide, are misleading. The charismatic Kirsten was not a depresssive and her daughter Sam can swear that she would never have taken her own life. She is convinced that her mother was murdered, her diary stolen and the title poem for her new collection suppressed. Sam realises that the only possible suspects are her own closest relations. Her father, a Cornish farmer, her stepfather, a successful London QC, or one of his family all seem to have had either motive or opportunity. The self-reliant, prickly Sam forces her way through deterrence and danger to the truth. In a parallel story the mother of three small children, on trial for killing her brutal husband, is defended on the grounds of 'justified homicide', an unusual plea, but one that really does exist in English law.
This gripping mystery is told with subtle insight into human behaviour, and keeping most of the horrors as noises-off. The subject is less what people did than what made them do it; the causes, excuses and ineradicable psychological effect of violent acts, which, however long ago they happened, are never forgotten. 'At the heart of every murder there's a child crying', we are told, as we listen to the grief echoing from behind closed doors and down the years.
Not being police officers most readers have to take on trust the accuracy of Graham Hurley's account of their work, but there is no doubt that his series of police-procedural novels is one of the best since the genre was invented more than half a century ago. Hurley makes plodding routine convincing but not tedious, and his setting in rough, seedy, insular Portsmouth is as characterful as the cops. Many of them come and go but Detective Inspector Faraday and Constable Winter are the resident heroes, both men lonely widowers, convincing, compassionate and like all the best series heroes, have troublesome personal problems which never quite stop them detecting. In this book we see Winter falling apart as he refuses to give in to increasingly crippling headaches and gets involved with a posh prostitute. Faraday becomes obsessed beyond the call of duty with a wide-ranging investigation sparked off by the discovery of a headless corpse washed up on an Isle of Wight beach. As always Hurley has pulled off the trick of filling his pages with downbeat, depressing details and making them into an upbeat, enjoyable read.
Oxford is littered with generations of fictional corpses, while Cambridge, despite several graduates (myself included) being crime novelists, has not been used as a setting for murder very often. Jill Paton Walsh started filling in some of this gap with a series set in St Agatha's College, which was on hold while she completed one and wrote another book using Dorothy L Sayers' characters and style. Here she returns to her voice and period. In this traditional whodunnit Imogen Quy is an updated Miss Marple, a heroine who, depending on the viewpoint, is a saviour or an interfering busybody. Imogen is a college nurse whose ministrations extend far beyond the sickroom, since she 'suffers from incurable and indiscriminate helpfulness'. When patients, employers or acquaintances have problems Imogen diagnoses, treats and cures them. Her ministrations are not confined to the students and dons, though this story begins as a traditionally 'cosy' mystery set in a the protected, enclosed community, half way through it turns into a much harsher and more contemporary tale of unscrupulous businessmen, a Maxwell-style financier and dysfunctional families. A comfortable read about uncomfortable real life.
Alec Milius's previous adventure ended with his disgrace and dishonorable discharge from MI6. When this second book opens Alec is living undercover and alone in Madrid. He has found a job, a girl friend (his new boss's wife) and a whole new life. But he has been guarding his back from MI6 and the CIA, the Spanish authorities and ETA for every minute of the last six years. A spy turned out into the cold is doomed to loneliness and fear, to a lifetime of precautions and pretences but are they, whoever they might be, really out to get him or is he paranoid? Then Alec's past begins to catch up with him and he cannot resist the chance of being an insider again, or at least, a hanger on. When the enemy come for him (and it doesn't matter whether they are Basques or Brits) he understands that he really is expendable. This is a convoluted, well-written tale, but Charles Cumming took a gamble in consciously making Alec Milius tell his own story. He is intended to expose himself as vain, selfish, conniving and tedious, and so he does.