Jessica Mann

April 2007 Crime Round-up

  • Don Winslow, 
  • David L Robbins, 
  • William Horwood & Helen Rappaport, 
  • Thomas Perry, 
  • Deborah Crombie, 
  • Alex Gray, 
  • David Lawrence, 
  • Jay Rayner

The Winter of Frankie Machine

By Don Winslow

William Heinemann 320pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

Everybody loves ‘Frank the bait guy’. At sixty-something, he lives a retired life in San Diego, combining his fishing shop on the pier with three other part-time jobs. He indulges his student daughter, dotes on his gorgeous girlfriend and is kind to his ex-wife. A model citizen – except that Frank Machianno is also a hit man (retired) otherwise known as ‘Frankie Machine’. The local Mafia boss calls in a favour and Frank finds himself a target. He takes a long walk through a memory lane paved with the bodies of his victims, and when he works out who wants him dead he reciprocates with gusto. The book is full of tension and black humour, and the story is so cleverly told that you forget that the charming hero is a brutal serial murderer. In fact, in the end, everybody loves Frankie Machine.

The Assassin’s Gallery

By David L Robbins

Orion 432pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Is history made by people or by events? Can its course be changed by the assassination of a single individual? The Assassin’s Gallery begins with a discussion of this question at a training school for potential assassins in Scotland in 1944. It is all just theoretical, of course – until the professor is whisked off to Washington as the improbable hunter of an unlikely killer, the beautiful Judith who can use any weapon, adopt many disguises, and has been sent to kill the President. Detectable by only one man, she approaches her target via his colleagues, then his friends, and finally his mistress. Apart from the fact that the ailing F D Roosevelt did die in office, and all the other events described happened, the story is a dotty, coincidence-filled Modesty Blaise-style caper dressed up in academic clothing – an excellent combination. I loved it.

Dark Hearts of Chicago

By William Horwood & Helen Rappaport

Hutchinson 320pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Emily Strauss is a young and ambitious reporter. It is 1893, the World’s Fair is in full swing in Chicago, and women are disappearing in broad daylight. Emily bluffs her way into the newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer’s office, and bounces out of it with an assignment: to find out what happened to the missing women. The razzmatazz of the Fair is colourful, the feminist heroine attractive, but this frontier-style town is brutal, with a sickening contrast between the immigrant poor and the arrogant, newly rich and ruthless men who control the pornography, prostitution, and meat-packing industries. The plot is over-melodramatic but the description of nineteenth-century Chicago is atmospheric. William Horwood's previous books have been a misery memoir and a series about spiritual moles in an imaginary wood, but collaboration with a historian has resulted in an excellent, if unexpected thriller.

Nightlife

By Thomas Perry

Quercus 384pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

A not quite credible but undeniably gripping story in which a young woman makes her way across America, taking on a new identity with each new city and leaving a succession of lovers’ corpses behind her. Meanwhile another young woman, a police detective, is on the trail. With all the current discussion of identity cards in the UK, it is interesting to read this convincing account of an amateur easily acquiring and altering the equivalent American document. It is through conventional, old fashioned, hands-on-detection that the good cop gets the bad girl in the end.

Water Like a Stone

By Deborah Crombie

Macmillan 560pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

By convenient coincidence Superintendent Kincaid of Scotland Yard has just arrived for a family Christmas when his sister Juliet finds a mummified baby in an old barn she is renovating. The mystery soon takes in Juliet's disintegrating marriage, her husband's creepy business partner who has an even creepier son, while a parallel plot involves narrow-boaters on the Midland canals. The scene is vividly set and the characters are convincing and almost too absorbing – as a newcomer to this series I was distracted from the plot by trying to understand gnomic references to past events in the life of Kincaid, his police inspector wife, their respective children and his family. Like Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes, Crombie is an American whose view of Britain is rosy, if in this case not overly romantic. Her descriptions of Nantwich and the area around it will delight the local tourist board.

The Riverman

By Alex Gray

Sphere 320pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

'Tartan noir' is a trendy young category of crime fiction, but seldom a good advertisement for life in Scotland. Alex Gray's book is a welcome change from the urban underworld. The Glasgow she describes was always respectable and is becoming exciting, a thriving city where firms of professionals have international client lists and the partners hang valuable modern art in their penthouse apartments. The plot of this scrupulous novel is based around the work of accountants, which admittedly sounds dry; it's worth remembering that it was exactly that boredom factor which made Enron's gigantic scams (referred to several times here) possible. The involvement in capital crimes of the suspects and victims, all partners in a respectable Scottish firm, becomes positively probable. Not quite noir but definitely tartan.

Down into Darkness

By David Lawrence

Penguin 416pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

It would be surprising if David Lawrence's crime novels were not written in precise, atmospheric prose and if he had not created a taut, slightly baroque plot for this book; for this pen-name belongs to David Harsent, a poet weighed down with literary awards. He also writes television screenplays, most recently for Midsomer Murders, and there is a visual edginess to the short snappy scenes and abrupt cuts as the lens of attention darts between the characters. Set in a violent, sinister London, this series features a fashionably sensitive but tough woman as detective. Having grown up herself as a slum kid from the tower block estate she now polices, she can tell what's going on, and who is doing it and how they get away; and she knows how to deal with it – and does.

The Oyster House Siege

By Jay Rayner

Atlantic Books 304pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

One night in 1975 a gang of criminals on the run burst into a restaurant in Knightsbridge called The Spaghetti House, took staff and customers hostage and remained there under siege in the basement for six days. Jay Rayner, who is a restaurant critic, uses those facts as the basis for a novel set on election night in 1983. The great and the good are celebrating a Conservative victory in a Jermyn Street restaurant, the two masked and armed gunmen are drug-dealers, the chef the heroine. She keeps control of the situation by cooking elaborate meals, using ingredients sent in by the police. This being a generation back, the drugs are grass not smack, so one of the dealers can be shown as a relatively sympathetic character who in the course of several dramatic days discovers the delights of cooking fine food. Redemption through cooking is a nice idea. But the combination of fierce brutality with fine cuisine is indigestible.

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