Inspector Montalbano was a fictional favourite long before British television started showing the Italian dramatisation of his adventures, but he was made even more popular by a TV series that could have been commissioned by the Sicilian tourist office, so tempting were the landscapes and townscapes. A spin-off series, screened in the autumn of 2013, features a different actor playing the young Montalbano and is equally decorative. The screenplays stick closely to the books’ plots and dialogue, though when The Treasure Hunt gets round to being filmed the director might choose to tone down a slight element of slapstick. The story begins with a seemingly harmless treasure hunt. Rhyming couplets arrive by post and the anonymous author challenges Montalbano to solve them. Montalbano of course rises to the challenge, filling an idle period at work until crimes that need investigating are reported. This being neatly plotted fiction, they turn out to be connected to the clues on which Montalbano had seemed to be wasting his time. Of course, every detail is relevant and only Montalbano can interpret them correctly. This is very enjoyable reading.
It is 1928, five years since the first appearance of Harris Stuyvesant, then with the FBI. Now a private detective, he is in Paris hunting for a young woman who has disappeared. It soon becomes clear that the missing girl is one of many. Stuyvesant makes new girlfriends and meets old ones; first he helps the police, then they arrest him. Ingenious and brave he may be, but like most boozers, in fiction and life, he is much less interesting when drunk (as he often is). Laurie King obviously enjoyed researching the period, as the book is full of atmospheric details about the Americans in Paris who became known as the ‘lost generation’: Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Man Ray, Hemingway and many more. And then there is Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol, where human behaviour at its most depraved is shown on stage. King must have taken pleasure in writing some of the remarkably macabre passages in a book that combines historical realism with skilled plotting.
This is a sequel to A Time To Kill, in which John Grisham, in his first novel, demonstrated the vagaries of the legal system as practised in Clanton, Mississippi. The righteous, brave young lawyer Jake Brigance may have triumphed in court, but he paid for it. He, his wife and their small daughter were burnt out of their home by a gang of vicious Southerners. Still in temporary accommodation two years later, waiting for the insurers to stump up, Jake finds himself acting for a dead man. Seth Hubbard wrote a will by hand leaving his millions to his black, middle-aged housekeeper, posted the will to Jake and then hanged himself. Needless to say, the disinherited son and daughter lawyer up. The case is to go before Judge Atlee – one of Clanton’s more scrupulous justices – and battle lines are drawn with all due solemnity and speed. If, like me, you enjoy courtroom dramas, this is a gripping read. If your eyes glaze over at claims, counterclaims, depositions, objections, jury selection and all the other peculiarities of the American legal system, it’s not a book for you. But those who do read it will find the tragic history of Ford County and its black population hard to forget.
Sara Paretsky is sometimes credited with changing the face of contemporary women’s fiction by introducing V I Warshawski, a female private eye. (She wasn’t quite the first to do that: the independent, gutsy, Chicago-based detective only arrived two years after Liza Cody’s novel featuring another gutsy, independent PI, Anna Lee.) Warshawski first appeared in 1982 and doesn’t seem to change; from the outset she has ignored authority and run into danger, often with the most flimsy of motives. Critical Mass is propelled by events from the Second World War, and details of a physics research institution in Austria between the wars, staffed (uniquely) by female scientists. From there the story moves to the present, with research into nuclear secrets and the cutting edge of computing, all the while alternating with Warshawski’s normal work environment, down among Chicago’s drinkers and druggies. Physics, the fate of Europe’s Jews and the USA’s all-embracing anti-terror laws are balanced against the heroine’s home life with big dogs and a grandfather figure to watch over her. This is Sara Paretsky’s most ambitious novel so far: interesting, exciting and well worth reading.
Dick Wolf is the creator of the long-running television series Law & Order, so though this is his first novel, he is already highly skilled at plotting and knows exactly how to ratchet up the suspense. This story is set in the days leading up to President Obama’s ceremonial dedication of the new Freedom Tower built at Ground Zero in New York. A man tries to hijack a commercial jet as it prepares to land at New York. Five passengers and a flight attendant manage to subdue him. On landing, these people – ‘The Six’ – become instant celebrities and are kept together in a hotel so that they can be honoured at Ground Zero by the president in person. However, one NYPD investigator thinks there is more to come and is, of course, right. There is a good helping of violence and some social commentary, especially on the subject of instant celebrity. It’s all very tense and thrilling: one reads it fast enough not to object too much to wooden characters and clumsy dialogue.
To begin with, this book seemed to be yet another variation on the over-used themes of a vicious male nutter who abducts, rapes, imprisons and eventually murders pretty young women, and overworked police officers who are torn between the job and their neglected families. In fact Elizabeth Corley has a more original take on those familiar tales. The victim in this case is a 17-year-old schoolgirl from a rich, posh family; the detectives are committed and clever but all are preoccupied with private problems, some dating from Corley’s first crime novel. The story is interesting and even exciting, though at 542 pages it did begin to lose its hold on this reader. But meticulous plotting and neat turns of phrase make Dead of Winter an enjoyable read, and all the better for a plot that turned out not to be simply more of the predictable same.
‘Politics in Scotland have never been so ugly. Lots of hot heads out there, and most of them nursing some grievance or other.’ Readers who don’t live in Scotland might not realise what passions have been aroused in Scottish breasts by the prospect of next year’s referendum on independence. The emotions spill over into other aspects of life or – this being a crime novel – death. John Rebus was supposed to have retired but can’t keep away from the job. He has accepted demotion to the rank of detective sergeant, thereby swapping places with his former sergeant, who is now his boss. In this reunion of characters, Rankin includes Malcolm Fox of The Complaints, who is about to return to normal duty. But first a thirty-year-old case is to be reinvestigated. This could be embarrassing because the original investigation team, now suspected of malpractice, is the one on which the young Rebus served all those years ago. Meanwhile a very up-to-the-minute case is also being investigated – with input from Rebus – concerning senior members of the Scottish parliament and their student children. The rather confusing use of nicknames, the profusion of bit-part characters and the allusive, obscure conversations can make it quite hard to follow the story but, as always, Ian Rankin unfolds a mystery that intrigues enough to keep one reading to the end.