The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees; Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin; The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill; The Death List by Paul Johnston; The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag; The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson; Devil’s Peak by Deon Meyer - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

June 2007 Crime Round-up

  • Matt Rees, 
  • Ariana Franklin, 
  • Colin Cotterill, 
  • Paul Johnston, 
  • Tami Hoag, 
  • Andrew Wilson, 
  • Deon Meyer

The Bethlehem Murders

By Matt Rees

Atlantic Books 272pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Omar Yussef is a weary old teacher who tries to keep politics out of his home and classroom. But in Bethlehem conflict is inescapable; and though the Israelis are a fact of life, the real enemies are home-grown terrorists. When a Christian is accused of killing a 'freedom fighter' by leading the Israelis to him, Yussef knows the man is innocent and goes to dangerous lengths to prove it. ‘“What an old fool you are,” he told himself, “scrambling around in a battle zone in your nice shoes. Sometimes you can have a gun to your head and you still don't know where your brains are.”' The murder mystery is intricate and clever, but what makes this book so outstanding is its evocation of daily life in hideous circumstances, and the survival of human decency in an utterly indecent situation. This unlikely hero, burdened by fear for himself, his family and his pupils, fighting against the urge to feel that 'all his life's work was just so much destroyed hope and goodness befouled', finds in himself strength and courage he never knew he had. It is an unusual adjective for a crime novel, but I'd call this one inspiring.

Mistress of the Art of Death

By Ariana Franklin

Bantam 400pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Ariana Franklin, aka Diana Norman, has written many enjoyable historical novels, and the addition of a mystery plot makes this one even more so. It is based on a true story, the death of eleven-year-old William of Norwich and the persecution of English Jews that ensued. Henry II needs his Jews working and paying taxes, while in Cambridge, where several Christian children have been murdered, the Jews have been penned up in the castle for their own safety. All the same, when more young children go missing, and then when their murdered bodies are found, the Jews are inevitably suspects – or scapegoats. Enter to the rescue a chippy girl 'whose eyes regard a tree, a patch of grass with interrogation: what's your name? What are you good for? If not, why not?' This delightfully original detective heroine is a Sicilian doctor with forensic insight, no bedside manner and some revolutionary medical techniques. I hope we meet her again.

The Coroner’s Lunch

By Colin Cotterill

Quercus 288pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

In 1976, a year after the Communist takeover in Laos, 72-year-old Dr Siri Paiboun is the state coroner; in fact, the country's only coroner since his predecessor fled to Thailand. This unconventional hero was trained as a doctor in Paris but now has to work with one outdated medical textbook, few medical supplies, one devoted nurse and an orderly with Down's syndrome. His work is obstructed by officialdom and bureaucracy, while secret enemies are determined to prevent him from proving that the wife of an important government official was murdered. Material help comes from his friends, a sandwich maker, a river man and others who have returned alive from 'compulsory education', and Siri has dreams in which he talks to, or even turns into dead people: these are not ghosts, but messages from Siri's own subconscious, which eventually reveal the truth. The story is good, the characters interesting, the hero delightful and the setting fascinating: a find.

The Death List

By Paul Johnston

Mira Books 336pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

In his previous series, one featuring a future sleuth in a dystopian Edinburgh, the other a half-Greek half-Scots private eye in modern Greece, Paul Johnston produced some of the best crime fiction of recent years. He writes as well as ever here, though the acknowledgements preceding this book refer to ‘the ups and downs of my recent life’ and there seems to be a considerable autobiographical element in the portrait of a once successful crime novelist, now 'blocked good and proper', dropped by his publishers, agent and wife, and overtaken by his professional rivals. That bitter state, familiar in fact and not unknown in fiction, leads on to a horror story, in which the author meets his last, greatest fan and is drawn into a sinister game with increasingly vicious revenge taken on everyone who ever slighted him. This is a nightmarish tale, but a very clever one.

The Alibi Man

By Tami Hoag

Orion 368pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Elena Estes has disowned her rich family, stopped working as an undercover cop, and is getting herself together after a traumatic attack by working in a friend's stable. But when she finds the alligator-mauled body of another groom, Elena starts investigating, all the more enthusiastically when she realises that the chief suspect is her own one-time-fiancé, a man who has previously got away with rape and murder. He is one of the arrogant Palm Beach playboys who give each other alibis and buy themselves out of any trouble. But now the Russian mob has arrived in Florida and they play by different rules. To some extent this is writing by numbers: underdogs – grooms, detectives and even a bed-hopping professional polo player – are relatively decent, whilst politicians, lawyers, and the filthy rich have no redeeming features, and a Russian mobster is simply a cartoon villain; but the plot hangs together and the story swings snappily along.

The Lying Tongue

By Andrew Wilson

Canongate 320pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

Although it's set in Venice, this is not one of those travelogue crime novels worth saving up to read there, for the narrator, Adam, hardly sets foot outside the dusty palazzo where he has taken a job as companion, nurse and maid of all work to a famous, reclusive, one-book author. Andrew Wilson's previous book was the biography of Patricia Highsmith, and this clever first novel shares many of her qualities: nothing and nobody is what they seem, the victim and the villain are men, the atmosphere is unsettling, the mystery claustrophobic and a guilty conscience is surplus to requirements.

Devil’s Peak

By Deon Meyer

Hodder & Stoughton 416pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

One needs to become acclimatised to rapid switches of viewpoint between perpetrators, their victims and the cops, but as the fog of misunderstanding gradually clears it becomes clear that this is one of those entertainment fictions that teaches one more than any textbook or documentary. This thriller is a fascinating portrayal of one aspect of life in post-apartheid South Africa. The story's principal actors are a black, assegai-wielding former freedom fighter who turns into a vigilante and goes on a killing spree; a high-class tart; and a policeman who drinks to drown the screaming that's waiting inside his head: 'One day it will come out and I am scared that I am the one who will hear it.' It does come out and he is the one who hears it, winding up the tension to a gripping, shocking climax. Highly recommended.

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