Jessica Mann

July 2006 Crime Round-up

  • Matthew d'Ancona, 
  • Denise Mina, 
  • Frances Fyfield, 
  • Barbara Nadel, 
  • Robert Wilson, 
  • Michael Gregorio, 
  • Jeffrey Deaver, 
  • Elizabeth Wilson, 
  • Joseph Finder, 
  • Gwendoline Butler

Tabatha’s Code

By Matthew d'Ancona

Alma Books 400pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Tabatha's Code works as a story of ideas. It works as a portrait of a particular type of twenty-first-century man, a well-meaning, liberal-minded but (or perhaps therefore) ineffectual teacher; it works as a memoir of life on the American hippy trail in the old days; but it does not work as a convincing thriller. It is impossible to believe, or to suppose that the author believed, in violence described in such phrases as ‘she slid to the floor, revealing a new sanguinary poppy spreading thickly on the headrest’. Descriptions of carnage brought about by remorseless bombers alternate with scenes from domestic life where our hero changes nappies as expertly as he recites the poems of Yeats and Emily Dickinson. When high-powered political journalists knock off a quick novel, the result is (of course) readable, relevant and instructive, but there is often a credibility gap.

The Dead Hour

By Denise Mina

Bantam Press 352pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

This unusual and unusually well-written novel is set in 1984 – the date seems without Orwellian significance – and is the second book featuring Paddy Meehan: a young reporter with boundless ambition but restricted freedom – she is the only earner in her loved, loving but needy family. A crisp, taut thriller is combined with a memorable portrait of Glasgow's tribes and their old enmities (Catholic/ Protestant, Irish/Scottish, feminist/male chauvinist pig). Paddy is a sympathetic heroine, being gutsy, idealistic and clever. As she learns her trade by doing it, she also learns about its ethics from bitter experience and her own mistakes. The tartan army is on the march through crime fiction as well as politics, with Denise Mina among its leaders.

The Art of Drowning

By Frances Fyfield

Little, Brown 384pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

I don't know whether Francis Fyfield intended a corrective to the townie’s sentimental view of rural life, but her new book certainly bears out Sherlock Holmes's dictum about worse crimes happening in the 'smiling countryside' than in the meanest of mean streets. This clever psychological thriller about revenge and retribution concerns a judge who has a sly son and a police protector, a lonely accountant with a limited social and emotional life, and a family who at first seems to be from Warm Comfort Farm. When the charismatic Ivy takes Rachel home to meet her folks, their seductively generous welcome masks a sinister sub-text. Lethal booby traps lurk in beautiful rural corners and venom underlies the façade of benevolence. Skilful writing makes some of the characters memorable, but I shall try to forget what happens to them. The nastier moments are enough to put one off the countryside for life.

After the Mourning

By Barbara Nadel

Headline 320pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

Wartime, the East End. In 1940, many of those newly dispossessed by air-raids come to live in the unclaimed countryside of Epping Forest; fugitives, homeless people, spies and gypsies. Then they begin to die: the first victim is a Romany girl, but mass slaughter ensues. Events are described in the reserved, passionless voice of Francis Hancock, an undertaker who has seen the worst that can happen to the human body – not only at work, but also during the traumatising experiences of the First World War. The period detail seems exact, and the plot credible. A series is promised with Hancock as hero. He seems rather too subdued for such a role but may yet develop the charm that (as writers like Allingham or Sayers proved) a popular running hero must have.

The Hidden Assassins

By Robert Wilson

HarperCollins 464pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

If you only read one thriller this year, make it this one. Seville's homicide detective, Javier Falcon, is featured in two of Wilson's previous books, but this time it's not just murder he must investigate, but a terrorism outrage in which a bomb goes off underneath a kindergarten. The ramifications take in most of Europe and much of North Africa, but the detection is local, depending on Falcon's knowledge of his own city and intimacy with its inhabitants, as well as his persuasive psychological insights. It is hard to believe that a detective would be connected closely to two women involved in two apparently separate crimes and still be permitted to investigate both. But that is my only quibble about this very complicated novel. It makes demands on the reader's stamina, but is a thrilling and memorable read.

Critique of Criminal Reason

By Michael Gregorio

Faber & Faber 400pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Napoleon is poised on Prussia's borders, waiting to invade, and the inhabitants of Königsberg are being terrorised by a spate of murders. A magistrate from a neighbouring town is ordered to investigate. So far so good; the setting is brilliantly portrayed and the harsh, superstitious, masculine world springs to life, making one very glad not to be there and then. But the point of the book is that the most famous inhabitant of Königsberg is Immanuel Kant, who had been the mentor of the investigating magistrate. A previous quarrel between the two men, and the complication in their personal relationship forms the human side of this well-written and intellectually demanding novel.

The Cold Moon

By Jeffrey Deaver

Hodder & Stoughton 416pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Crime fiction used to be full of criminals who left capricious clues and detectives characterised by disabilities that forced them to rely on brainpower alone. Jeffrey Deaver's books are set in contemporary New York and use uninhibited language to describe uncensored violence but all the same this set-up seems quite old-fashioned, featuring a criminal who leaves a ticking clock beside every random victim as his calling card, and a quadriplegic detective with a pretty woman as his runner. A silly story though a readable one.

The Twilight Hour

By Elizabeth Wilson

Serpent's Tail 256pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

A vivid portrait of bohemian life in 'Fitzrovia' during the austerity of 1947 and the coldest winter of the twentieth century. Everyone is exhausted, food and fuel are strictly rationed, London is nowhere near back to normal but ambitious young 'creatives' struggle to get going on their writing or painting, with Hollywood beckoning tantalisingly. But none of them can escape the shadow of the last war, the cold war or the class war. The writing is good and the scene-setting fascinating, but the plot depends on the irritatingly silly behaviour of a heroine who should (with apologies to Ogden Nash) have 'told the dix/how she got in that fix'. How odd that it is historically plausible for her to be, at twenty-one, already married and matronly. The past is a foreign country indeed.

Killer Instinct

By Joseph Finder

Orion 416pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Jason, an ambitious business executive, does a favour to a down-and-out and feels the better for it. Then he realises that he has made a Faustian pact. His protégé is an ex-special forces officer just back from Iraq who is determined to repay his benefactor by using, in civilian life, skills learnt in the military. For a while it seems that everything is going Jason’s way, as he finds himself rising effortlessly up the corporate ladder while his rivals and enemies trip up and get the sack. But Jason has a tiger by the tail. When he tries to call a halt, he finds his new best friend has turned into an implacable enemy. This may be a crime novel but its subtext is a sermon on the price of success.

Dread Murder

By Gwendoline Butler

Allison & Busby 288pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Welcome back to Gwendoline Butler and her pair of ex-soldier detectives stationed at Windsor Castle in George IV's reign. Whether the setting is bang up-to-date or historical, all Butler's books share a unique combination of attributes, being at once sinister, inventive and charming. Her most improbable plots remain just within the bounds of historical possibility for she herself was a professional historian, and draws on her knowledge of the period to recreate its sounds, smell and atmosphere.

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