Jessica Mann

June 2006 Crime Round-up

  • Susan Hill, 
  • Peter Robinson, 
  • Reggie Nadelson, 
  • Ake Edwardson, 
  • Aline Templeton, 
  • Colleen McCullough, 
  • Jason Goodwin

Risk of Darkness

By Susan Hill

Chatto & Windus 374pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Epater le bourgeois was simple when all it took was explicit sex and sadism. The level of disgust ratchets inexorably upwards as it takes more and more to shock readers, bourgeois or otherwise. That means it must be sadly old-fashioned for Susan Hill to write and me to enjoy a novel in which hideous crimes take place off stage or page, described only by allusions and evasion. Hill is a successful novelist, playwright and editor, so undoubtedly knows that in this genre reticence has become as revolutionary as candour used to be. Her story is unusual in other ways too because there is not much detection, nor any scope for solving the puzzle before the hero does, since the guilty parties are never in doubt. Any puzzles concern character: a woman serial child-murderer, whose motives and methods remain a mystery; a bereaved husband made mad and dangerous by grief; a woman priest; husband-and-wife GPs and (in the unrealistic tradition of a golden age thriller) a detective inspector who is rich, posh and a successful watercolour painter. That detail aside, the characters are credible; less so, the sudden outbreak of several unconnected crimes in a small cathedral town.

Piece of my Heart

By Peter Robinson

Hodder Headline 416pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Two murder victims are found after a pop festival. One is identified as a music journalist, the other a young girl who died in 1969 when pop was a new if not revolutionary idea and police detectives despised long-haired pot-smoking hippies and their rock and roll. That unsolved case is revisited a generation later. Bright young stars have turned into raddled old men, detection methods rely on scientific insights that were not dreamt of a generation earlier, and Detective Inspector Banks can admit without embarrassment that he is a music buff. This multi-layered mystery describes interlocking inquiries, with jumpy time shifts and rapidly alternating sections. Robinson's series is always reliable and occasionally outstanding, but this time the backwards and forwards switch of concentration loosens the grip on his readers.

Fresh Kills

By Reggie Nadelson

Heinemann 343pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Crime novels can shock, disgust, entertain, amuse – but no matter how appalling the subject matter, it is unusual for them to make readers sad. This one does. Its genuinely tragic ending is implicit in the very beginning when Billy, on leave from a young offenders institution, comes to stay with his uncle Artie Cohen, a New York Russian detective. Artie loves Billy. Billy loves Artie. But Billy is a murderer. Artie must simultaneously investigate appalling crimes and keep Billy safe. He is determined to believe that the bright, jokey teenager is exactly what he seems, cured of whatever afflicted him. But then bodies start turning up. This is a brilliant portrait of a sensitive, brave man and a traumatised society at a time when London's July 7th bombers had just revived the twin-towers terror. Nadelson has written an unusually passionate and sensitive thriller, and I am not just saying say so because she describes her New York cop keeping and religiously reading stacks of the London Literary Review.

Never End

By Ake Edwardson

Harvill Secker 328pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

There is an unlimited supply of bleak, scrupulous police procedurals out of Scandinavia, and an unlimited demand for them in English-reading countries. Edwardson has won repeated awards for his books in his own country and I guess will do so soon in ours, for in its pessimistic way this book is involving and interesting. It is Gothenburg’s hottest summer in living memory, and the parks are full of scantily dressed young women. A series of rape and murder cases haunts the officers who have to deal with them. They may lack useful clues but have intuition and industry instead. The balance between the policemen’s private lives and their professions is very well described; these aren’t cops who can leave their feelings out of their work, and a complex plot is made more interesting by the humanity of the detectives, for whom crime never becomes just another day at the office.

The Darkness and the Deep

By Aline Templeton

Hodder 368pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

This is Templeton's second book set in 'Knockhaven', in south-west Scotland, where DI Margory Fleming combines the roles of an authoritative, highly efficient modern manager of her team of detectives with domestic life as a farmer's wife, mother, daughter and friend. In the real world somebody who is so very much part of a community is probably disqualified from policing it, but in fictional terms the combination of domesticity and detection is very appealing, especially when it comes with a detailed, vivid portrayal of a complete society. In the first book the factual basis was the devastation visited on rural communities by the foot and mouth epidemic, in this one the actual, practical but also almost mystical status of the lifeboat service and its volunteers. When the lifeboat is lost with all three of its crew, it looks as though murder has been committed by the modern equivalent of Cornish wreckers. In local terms this is an especially shocking crime; in fictional terms, it’s an intriguing episode in an interesting, atmospheric and – I predict – televisual series.

On, Off

By Colleen McCullough

Harper Collins 448pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

An unexpected new line from the author of a series set in ancient Rome and romantic blockbusters like The Thorn Birds. This is a serial killer mystery, shifted away from the usual by being set in 1965, before DNA or psychological profiling, and amongst very clever people far removed from the cops and criminals popular in contemporary crime 'realism'. Here we have a research institute where human body parts can be burnt along with the remains of experimental animals in a handy incinerator. The team of boffins consists of men with more brains than nous. The women are lowly secretaries or technicians, and the lonely cop falls for one of them, improbably called Desdemona Dupre. The setting is interesting, the plot hangs together and this experienced writer knows how to grab attention and keep it. I was carried unresisting to the end. But the fictional fashion for serial killers has lasted a long time; too long?

The Janissary Tree

By Jason Goodwin

Faber & Faber 250pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

I would remark that this is a highly original tale if I had not, last month, reviewed another first novel with the same setting. What is it about Constantinople/Istanbul, apart from the inherently secretive background of courts and harem, that is set to make the Ottoman empire in the nineteenth century as familiar to mystery readers as downtown Los Angeles in the 1930s, with Goodwin's eunuch detective, a Philip Marlowe equivalent, going down the mean streets alone and unafraid. The action takes place shortly after the janissaries' reign of terror came to an end, but the menacing beat of their kettle drums is still the background to events in this atmospheric evocation of noisy, stinking alleys and their colourful occupants. This is a clever, accomplished book, its plot good, atmosphere, setting and historical information even better.

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