Vicious Circle by Robert Littell; Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino (Translated by Rebecca Copeland); A Greater Evil by Natasha Cooper; Exile by Richard North Patterson; Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves; The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman; A Gentle Axe by R N Morris; The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson; Saturnalia by Lindsey Davis - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

February 2007 Crime Round-up

  • Robert Littell, 
  • Natsuo Kirino (Translated by Rebecca Copeland), 
  • Natasha Cooper, 
  • Richard North Patterson, 
  • Ann Cleeves, 
  • Tony Hillerman, 
  • R N Morris, 
  • David Hewson, 
  • Lindsey Davis

Vicious Circle

By Robert Littell

Duckworth 304pp £14.99

A female American president and a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians: the beginning is as much fantasy as futurology. But realism quickly returns. An ultra-orthodox rabble-rousing rabbi is abducted in Jerusalem and held prisoner by a blind but murderous doctor. These two dreadful old men are equally dangerous, devout, and bigoted. While Mossad prepares the rabbi's rescue, he is interrogated, and spends long nights in dispute with his captor, demonstrating that fundamentalists have more in common with each other than with the people for whom they purport to speak. Robert Littell is one of the best and most intelligent thriller writers, so Vicious Circle is well worth reading even though real events have overtaken its scenario, and despite the gloom that this knowledgeable analysis of a hopeless situation inevitably evokes.


By Natsuo Kirino (Translated by Rebecca Copeland)

Harvill Secker 480pp £17.99

The second of Natsuo Kirino’s thirteen novels to be translated into English concerns the murder of two Tokyo prostitutes. They and the narrator met as young, ambitious girls who were being groomed for success at one of Tokyo's most competitive schools, which is saying a lot, since modern Japan, according to this book, is defined and deformed by lifelong, vicious competition. Be the best or be trampled on. Conform and obey. These female characters are pitiable but not for a single paragraph lovable or sympathetic. In a world still directed by caste and men, women must be seductive physically; but their personalities become stunted and warped like human bonsai. This is a fascinating, claustrophobic, shocking image of a society that can't really be as horrible as it seems in this dark and haunting thriller.

A Greater Evil

By Natasha Cooper

Simon & Schuster 336pp £17.99

Trish Maguire is a beguiling character and an attractive series-heroine, clever, kind, and sexy though far more altruistic than most of us could ever be. It is an unexpected quality in a barrister specialising in commercial law; while sustaining a successful practice, Trish goes to endless trouble for other people, even when they are neither relations, friends, nor clients. In this case Trish's sense of justice makes her rush to the rescue of a famous but neurotic artist who is suspected of battering his pregnant wife to death. In the process of helping him, Trish risks her relationship with her lover, her friendship with the policewoman in charge of the investigation and her own career. This is a humane account of an inhuman crime and an illuminating analysis of an insurance case that should be, but isn't, dry-as-dust. Very enjoyable.


By Richard North Patterson

Macmillan 684pp £12.99

This is a current affairs lesson disguised as entertainment fiction. 'The most controversial problem of our time' – the Israel/Palestine conflict – is presented through two characters: a secular American man, Jewish only in name, and a Westernised Palestinian woman. They had an affair when students at Harvard. Thirteen years on, he is a successful lawyer and aspiring politician. When the Israeli Prime Minister is assassinated in his motorcade in California, she is arrested. Only her former lover is prepared to take on her apparently hopeless defence. The attorney-turned-investigator embarks on a Middle-Eastern journey of discovery. An even-handed exposition of the rights and wrongs on both sides depicts a political problem without a solution, though the personal outcome is never in doubt. In North Patterson's courtroom thrillers, we can tell who is the good guy and he always wins.

Hidden Depths

By Ann Cleeves

Macmillan 320pp £12.99

Inspector Vera Stanhope has something in common with Reginald Hill's famous 'fat man' Dalziel – she even has a mollifying subordinate who follows her round soothing hurt feelings. But it is easier for men to get away with being overweight and rude. Vera's own life is so lonely that she has a dangerous tendency to become emotionally involved with suspects and witnesses. It is through that empathy that she solves crimes but her fantasies of friendship are doomed to disappointment. This case begins with the body of a victim floating in perfumed water and sprinkled with gaudy flowers. Similarly decorative and apparently motiveless murders follow. Cleeves sets a good scene, this time in Northumberland during a heatwave, and she brings a large cast to life, shifting points of view between bereaved relatives, victims and suspects in a straightforward, satisfyingly traditional detective novel.

The Shape Shifter

By Tony Hillerman

Allison & Busby 288pp £18.99

No squaws, scalps or galloping braves in Hillerman's fascinating Navajo mysteries – his Native Americans are practical and peaceable, firmly rooted in their ancestral territory and trying to maintain the traditional way of life. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn has just retired from the tribal police, and returns to an unsolved case which has haunted him since the early days of his career. Leaphorn is equally at home in the technological present and with people who are closer to the mystical society of their ancestors, so the book includes a lot of compare and contrast between the greedy, ruthless white culture and the Native American traditions, shown here as peaceful, harmonious and in tune with their surroundings.

A Gentle Axe

By R N Morris

Faber & Faber 356pp £12.99

We are in familiar territory for crime fiction: Russia under snow, corpses frozen rigid like logs, many grotesque characters and the usual sanctimonious monks, overbearing aristocrats, prostitutes, suspects and investigators with darkness and melancholy in their souls. This book is set in St Petersburg in 1867. When a time-expired tart finds two bodies in a park, one a dwarf, the other an elderly peasant, it seems that an axe murderer is on the loose and clues must be pursued through brothels, drinking dens and drawing rooms. The name and attributes of Detective Porfiry Petrovich are borrowed from Crime and Punishment, which may or may not be a recommendation. But the narrative is direct and effective, the place and people well drawn, with, presumably, a series to follow.

The Seventh Sacrament

By David Hewson

Macmillan 360pp £12.99

Novels and my archaeologist husband’s working library overlap on a crossover shelf in our house, labelled ‘the archaeologist in fiction’. Beside heroes (eg Indiana Jones) and absentminded academics, David Hewson’s archaeologist stands out because he is a serial killer at large, the father of a child missing and presumed dead in unexcavated Mithraic catacombs beneath Rome’s traffic-jammed streets. It is an old case re-opened for long-serving officers and an unfamiliar one for the running heroes Costa and Peroni, who, like all the best fictional detectives, become more rounded and interesting with every episode. Once I had got to grips with the flashbacks and timeshifts, I was hooked.


By Lindsey Davis

Century 324pp £17.99

Some of the adventures of the private eye in a toga have been too full of slapstick for my liking but this one gets the balance just right. The uxorious Falco must trace a missing prisoner booked for a ritual, public slaughter. One of the best in this long-running series, with a nice mix of wit and wisecracks.

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