Jessica Mann

March 2007 Crime Round-up

  • Reginald Hill, 
  • Scott Turow, 
  • Melanie Wallace, 
  • Elizabeth George, 
  • John Harvey, 
  • Bill James, 
  • Tana French, 
  • Mark Mills

The Death of Dalziel

By Reginald Hill

HarperCollins 416pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

The title provokes protest: surely Reginald Hill hasn't killed off the 'fat man'? But the book does indeed open with Police Superintendent Andy Dalziel getting too close to exploding Semtex. His sidekick, Peter Pascoe, has the same reaction as everyone else: ‘Dalziel was indestructible.’ The security services decide that it was a terrorist accident in which the suspects died, and serve them right. But Pascoe, uncharacteristically insubordinate, refuses to accept the official verdict. With his mentor at death's door in hospital, Pascoe investigates, uncovering a complicated scenario with different, overlapping classes of criminality. Conventional law-breaking by criminals, official law-perversion by secret services and arrogant law-ignoring by shadowy vigilantes calling themselves the Knights Templar make this a very complex story. Hill is always clever and funny, occasionally facetious. He demands intense concentration – because he's worth it.

Limitations

By Scott Turow

Picador 238pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This novella is Scott-Turow-Lite, lacking the satisfactory intellectual weight of earlier full-length books but enjoyable as a taster if one happens to enjoy legal dramas. We are back in Kindle County, Illinois, where George Mason, last seen as a criminal defence attorney, is now an appeal judge, hearing a much-publicised case concerning a group of men who had sexually assaulted an unconscious woman when all of them were students. The videotape of their crime has come to light, years later. The resurrection of this old crime revives the judge's own guilty memories, for his own youthful behaviour was nothing to be proud of. He has to deal with personal guilt, email and text threats, intrusive security, and his wife's treatment for aggressive cancer. With such a glut of plot material crammed into a short book, the story is a little disappointing in the end. Bring back the blockbusters.

The Housekeeper

By Melanie Wallace

Harvill Secker 304pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

Wallace describes an America so different from our usual image of it that it is hard to believe such primitive places survive. When Jamie arrives in the nowheresville known as Dyers Corner, she encounters predators both animal and human and a society in which it is taken for granted that cousins will have children, that those children are likely to be mentally defective, and that if so it is perfectly proper to tie them down. Jamie is seventeen and alone in the world except for her dog, but for a while she finds refuge from the brutally cold winter in the house of an elderly artist. But, by releasing a boy whom she finds tethered to a tree, she sets a monster free. The feral child, mute and mad, becomes both a killer and prey himself. The poetic prose and bleak setting are impressive but dispiriting.

What Came Before He Shot Her

By Elizabeth George

Hodder & Stoughton 512pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Elizabeth George's novels can be over-discursive and snobbish but this one is depressing social realism. It ends where the previous book ended, with the murder of the pregnant wife of Inspector Thomas Lynley (in private life heir to an earldom and a stately home). The story demonstrates, in carefully researched and painfully convincing detail, what turned a twelve-year-old into a killer. He is one of three mixed-race children. The mother is in an asylum, the father dead and the grandmother has escaped back to Jamaica, dumping the children on their aunt whose best efforts can't keep them from drugs and drink, gangs and guns. This Dickensian portrait of West London's underclass could be used as a textbook for social workers or journalists, a wake-up call to their neighbours, the conspicuous consumers of Notting Hill, or a short sharp shock for complacent provincials. It is rather a bitter pill but we should probably swallow it.

Gone to Ground

By John Harvey

Heinemann 400pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

After the battered body of a gay academic is found, his sister, who works for a radio station in Nottingham, and police in Cambridge simultaneously embark on trying to find out what happened, taking different approaches. The journalist is interested in the fact that the victim had been working on a biography of a minor film star whose early death had never been properly explained. The police take the more conventional view of relationships and suspect the victim's partner. Eventually the investigations intersect. The writing is straightforward, the characters well observed and the book is a good read – until a disappointing solution that brings the words ‘red herring’ and ‘garden path’ to mind.

Girls

By Bill James

Constable 224pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

James's books are very funny, though they’re not comic crime or crime caper. The setting is an unnamed town in which the authorities and criminals have perfected a modus vivendi. A blind eye is turned to illegality so long as violence stays off the streets. In an earlier book it was London gangsters who were seen off by the local barons. This time foreign dealers are moving in on the profitable drugs trade, bringing gun battles and underage girls into the prosperous suburbs. Chief Superintendent Harpur and his boss Assistant Chief Constable Iles are yoked together by old history. Iles hates Harpur for having had an affair with his wife; Harpur is trying to keep Iles away from his underage daughter. But they have to work together, this time and in the previous twenty-three books in the series, to get things back to what in their world passes for normal. Original, sophisticated and irresistible.

In the Woods

By Tana French

Hodder 426pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Like an explorer discovering a whole new territory, a reviewer coming upon a brilliant first novel feels the thrill of discovery, and so I did with In the Woods. This engrossing story is told by a young policeman on Dublin's murder squad who begins with a warning: ‘I crave truth. And I lie.’ The truth he craves is about his own childhood, when two playmates disappeared never to be found again. He escaped but does not remember from what or whom. Now he has been assigned to a similar case in exactly the same place and memories begin to trickle back as he investigates a murder. The body of a twelve-year-old girl has been found in ancient woodland where an excavation is going on before the past is buried forever under a new motorway. Her family seem untrustworthy, the archaeologists had ample opportunity, and the unresolved question of the long-lost children overshadows the investigation. The interplay between detective partners, the portrayal of the people involved, the atmosphere of tension and suspicion is skilfully described while the reader's attention is tightened and slackened with a masterly hand.

The Savage Garden

By Mark Mills

HarperCollins 368pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

This is a crime novel for people who don't read crime novels: the action is mental not physical, without weapons or gore. The pace is leisurely, the background scholarly rather than forensic, as Mills juggles the mysteries of three periods, switching between centuries with a conjuror's skill. The principal action takes place in 1958, when a young art historian is sent by his professor at Cambridge to stay with an aristocratic family in Tuscany to research the history of their sixteenth-century garden; in finding clues to a forgotten murder in the classical imagery of the statues and grottoes, he also finds evidence of a tragedy of the war years, when one of the owner's sons died, apparently at the hands of the villa's Germans occupiers. The book is beautifully written, giving life to the figures (human and sculpted) in their Tuscan landscape.

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