Any contemporary Londoner will know that Notting Hill is an impossibly chic, expensive and desirable district to live in. When I grew up nearby, these clean and favoured streets were badlands, the multi-million pound terrace houses teeming slums. Landlords, such as the notorious Rachman, bought the houses cheaply and got rid of rent-protected tenants by making their lives intolerable. One thing some narrow-minded cockneys found unbearable was the influx of coloured immigrants. Laura Wilson has recreated this era with an academic historian’s accuracy and a born writer’s imagination. The Riot is set in 1958 and the plot focuses on the notorious race riots that took place that year. The story is told from the viewpoint of Detective Inspector Stratton, who featured previously in books set during the war and then in 1956 against a background of the Hungarian Uprising and the Suez Crisis. This time, newly posted to Notting Hill, he must keep a watchful eye on the unrest while investigating the murder of a local resident whose body was found in a back garden. The geographical accuracy – the house and the street actually existed – adds immediacy to the story and, at least for readers who know the area, acts as a continuous reminder of how things have changed there. This exciting and interesting murder mystery could also be a historical document; it is a most impressive piece of work.
Here is a real oddity: this book is an expert and illuminating account of how American and other Western secret services keep their eyes on bin Laden-type enemies. It describes a world in which you can sit in an office in Washington and know from second to second what is going on in a compound in Pakistan or a village in Somalia, a world in which a charismatic cleric can persuade his followers to blow themselves and their victims to kingdom come simply by means of televised rants. As you read The Kill List, all begins to seem perfectly normal. So in one way this is another of Frederick Forsyth’s ingenious thrillers, based on global politics and his detailed knowledge of contemporary armaments. But the book feels like a draft rather than a finished novel, offering more technical information than human interaction – and it is virtually unisex. One or two elderly women make tea or sit at computers. Apart from them, the book is about men, all neatly manipulated by their venerable author. Schematic, impersonal but instructive.
This enthralling novel, written by a husband and wife, both of whom are winners of literary prizes, is set against a background of the worst natural disaster America has ever endured. After daily torrential rain throughout the winter and spring of 1926–7, the Mississippi flooded, drowning 27,000 square miles and nearly a million homes. Set against this factual background is the story of a man who became rich by making and selling illicit alcohol, of his wife and her journey to independence, and of the government agent who should have arrested her. The landscape is brilliantly described, the major characters and the bit parts all spring to life vividly. There are murders in this story, there is detection and there is retribution, so technically it just about counts as crime fiction. But it is my tip to win a major literary prize.
A précis of this short book does not make it seem like the sort of story I would normally choose to read, being bored by other peoples’ dreams and incurious about their outpourings to a shrink. But this time, instead of moving quickly on to the other books in my teetering pile, after a quick look I was hooked. The setting is Rome and the action is nearly all in the mind and memories of Roberto, a senior officer of the Carabinieri who is on leave, physically sickened by his own past actions as an undercover detective. Once a week he visits a psychiatrist and it is mainly in their conversations that the story unfolds. By chance, Roberto meets Emma, another one of the doctor’s patients, who is also haunted by guilt. The chapters are punctuated by the dreams of an adolescent boy. The Silence of The Wave’s disparate strands are elegantly woven together into a shapely whole by an author who has himself prosecuted organised crime, stood as an Italian senator and won literary prizes. Gianrico Carofiglio has written one of the most impressive and fascinating crime novels of the year.
Marion, a mother and the first-person narrator of The Cruellest Game, lives a smugly perfect life in a beautiful house on Dartmoor. She, her handsome husband who works on an oil rig for much of the year, and their clever teenage son make a perfect family; they don’t need friends and are chilly towards Marion’s father. Having set up this exclusive idyll, Hilary Bonner proceeds to demolish it violently. Marion finds her son’s body hanging in his bedroom; he has committed suicide. She can’t contact her husband and when he does come home, she discovers that he has been living a lie. Everything she has loved and believed in has evaporated. The story consists of her fall and self-propelled recovery. It’s very readable.
This non-fiction book is a history not of murder or of murder stories but of the enjoyment the British public has derived from them. Worsley believes that there is a national obsession with true crime and crime novels, which began at the turn of 19th century, when ‘a new and awful significance became attached to the crime of murder’. It continues to this day, when one in every three books sold is crime fiction. She takes the story up to the outbreak of the Second World War, which ended (by some peoples’ reckoning) the golden age of crime fiction. Worsley is a professional historian and a TV personality; the latter is in evidence here. A Very British Murder has been written to accompany a forthcoming television series and follows its format. There are chapters about famous true crimes, murder on stage and in film, the development of forensic pathology and scientific detection, and 19th- and 20th-century crime fiction, with mini-biographies of celebrated authors, the information derived, in some cases, from books that have been superseded by later research. But this is not intended to be an academic work. Worsley retells the stories of famous murders and legendary criminals in delightfully readable language, with the occasional sharp, illuminating comment that made me wish she had not been constrained by the TV tie-in.
This interesting book covers two quite different subjects. It’s a very knowing financial mystery – whose fingers are in the pie? Whose snout is in the trough? In parallel, it follows the chase for an abducted child, providing a realistic, touching picture of autism and its effect on family and friends.
The ninth (and apparently last) in a clever, well-written series of historical crime novels set in the 13th century and featuring an Oxford academic called William Falconer as its detective hero. Plague, political intrigue and prophesies are the background to a persuasive and entertaining medieval mystery.
Cambridge-based hero Matthew Bartholomew is one of those fictional detectives who finds corpses wherever he goes. Susanna Gregory writes with fluency and energy, avoids archaic vocabulary, despite her 14th-century setting, and, having had a career as an academic, bases the stories in this enjoyable series on careful research.