Jessica Mann

September 2006 Crime Round-up

  • Rebecca Pawel, 
  • James Sheehan, 
  • Helene Tursten, 
  • Jed Rubenfeld, 
  • Elizabeth Corley, 
  • Lawrence Block, 
  • Anna Blundy

The Summer Snow

By Rebecca Pawel

Soho Crime 320pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

So many new crime novels appear every month that my reading consists almost entirely of review copies, but I'm buying Rebecca Pawel's previous publications because this series is a real find. The Summer Snow is set in 1945, when the Spanish police detective Lieutenant Tejeda is summoned to his family home in Granada to investigate the death of his rich aunt. The triumphant Falangists are trying to return to normality after the civil war while 'Reds' are still the bogeymen, although so many are dead or in prison. Tejeda finds ruin, hunger and oppression in the streets, and in the ancestral home mutual disapproval and suspicion. A clever plot keeps up interest and tension, but it is the fully imagined characters, vivid background and clear, direct writing that make this book stand out and bring history to illuminating life.

The Mayor of Lexington Avenue

By James Sheehan

Bantam Press 421pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This courtroom thriller is a good read, though a shocking and deeply depressing one; set in small-town Florida, its purpose is to expose miscarriages of justice and the perversion of the American legal system. Venal prosecutors and dishonest police cynically use a 'retarded' man to advance their own careers. He is wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. A crusading lawyer takes on the might of entrenched corruption and excessive influence, but it's a David and Goliath fight. Like Richard North Patterson's Conviction, a novel with a very similar theme, Sheehan's book is a powerful polemic against the American legal system and above all against the death penalty.

The Torso

By Helene Tursten

Soho Crime 360pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

Tursten has been called the Swedish PD James, and this portrait of her society's dark underside is almost enough to make one wonder whether being a police inspector in the Violent Crimes unit is (to quote a James title) 'an unsuitable job for a woman'. Irene Huss investigates butchery too horrible to describe here, topping even some of the American path-lab novels, and I did doubt the realism of any police officer, male or female, setting off unprotected to investigate a criminal with such propensities. However this multitasking wife, mother, cop, and judo expert sorts out every problem that comes her way, from teenage daughters, an old dog and a new puppy, an overworked husband, an alcoholic partner, and the witnesses, victims and perpetrators themselves. And she gets her man.

The Interpretation of Murder

By Jed Rubenfeld

Headline Review 416pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Dr Freud did not enjoy his only visit to the United States, in 1909. That much is historical fact, as are the details given here about his relationship with the once-worshipful Carl Jung and the construction of the Manhattan Bridge. Another of the intertwined mysteries, criminal, historical and fictional, discussed here or solved, is the long-running dispute about Hamlet's motivations. Freud's detractors gossip and one of his American disciples uses psychology to track a strangler who tortures and mutilates female victims. One young woman got away but has forgotten her traumatic experience, so the analyst/detective, guided by Freud himself, elicits her repressed memories; meanwhile the official investigators confront the self-made billionaires whose control of New York is no less rigid for being unofficial. Fact and fiction are nicely blended in this clever and unusual novel by a law professor at Yale.

Grave Doubts

By Elizabeth Corley

Allison & Busby 288pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

A psychopath is on the loose and a woman police sergeant is stalked and threatened, not for the first time. She does not tell her colleagues what's happening, rejects help and hides out in an isolated house in Devon until a predictably melodramatic finale. But the story is much more unusual and intelligent than its plot summary. Sergeant Louise Nightingale is a fully rounded and interesting heroine who, I hope, will appear in many more books, even if once or twice her hyper-courage and self-reliance seem more foolish than admirable and the obsessive male inspector more admirable than sensible. There are elements of the Gothic here, and of the girl meets/loses/finds boy romance, but both those elements and the ever increasing body count are described with great subtlety. The detection element is cleverly done and the story genuinely exciting.

Hit Parade

By Lawrence Block

Orion 304pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

An assassin's work is never done; a year in the life of a professional hitman shows that his job is as routine as any other wage slave's. Keller has to follow his targets around baseball games, basketball, golf in Arizona – what a hardship! One assignment even allows him to indulge his own passion for stamp collecting. Keller's agent, Dot, fixes up the contracts and takes her cut after Keller has 'taken care of business’. As he neatly eliminates such targets as the jockey in a fixed horse race, a Cuban exile, a baseball player and a fellow stamp collector, even the reader begins to live in a world where right and wrong have turned upside down. For Keller's professional ethics are demanding: he wouldn't let a client down and we would be shocked if he did. For the duration at least, we are on killer Keller's side. A dry, wry, easy read which provokes difficult thoughts.

Neat Vodka

By Anna Blundy

Time Warner 288pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

Hard drinking, effing and blinding woman reporter called Faith Zanetti returns to Moscow where, aged nineteen, she used to live with her Russian husband. Many years later she has managed to put out of her mind both her ex and the couple she found hacked to death in the next door flat. Memories flood back when on day one in her new posting she is arrested and charged with their murder. Obviously she has to find out who did it. In many ways this is a funny, clever thriller, and it has an original take on a country the author knows intimately and evidently loves. But fictional drunks are no better company than real ones, and Zanetti spends too much of this book swallowing or sleeping off the vodka. Best read with a drink of one's own.

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