Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace; Killer Tune by Dreda Say Mitchell; Natural History by Neil Cross; The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi; Rounding the Mark by Andrea Camilleri; Second Violin by John Lawton; Jacquot and the Fifteen by Martin O'Brien; Skin Privilege by Karin Slaughter - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

August 2007 Crime Round-up

  • David Peace, 
  • Dreda Say Mitchell, 
  • Neil Cross, 
  • Anne Zouroudi, 
  • Andrea Camilleri, 
  • John Lawton, 
  • Martin O'Brien, 
  • Karin Slaughter

Tokyo Year Zero

By David Peace

Faber & Faber 368pp £16.99

In Tokyo in 1946, ‘this city is no city, this country, no country’. And this police department is one in which everybody has good reasons to be afraid, and most have even better reasons to disguise their true identity. Little wars are fought beneath the attention of the American occupiers, as different ethnic groups compete to control the sale and supply of black-market food. This book counts as crime fiction because its plot is a murder investigation – apparently based on a real-life case from 1946 when two young women were found murdered in Shiba Park. Detective Minami of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is assigned to the case and it is fascinating to follow his investigation as he gradually realises that he has a personal involvement in the secret past of the victims and their killer. But what makes this book remarkable is the brilliantly evocative portrait of the devastated city and its defeated inhabitants: ‘We have seen hell, we have known heaven, we have heard the last judgement, and we have witnessed the fall of the gods.’

Killer Tune

By Dreda Say Mitchell

Hodder & Stoughton 416pp £11.99

The rap artist and mega-star Jeremiah Skantleberry, aka Lord Tribulation, is suspected of being involved in crimes: his father’s death to the sound of reggae and the firebombing of a house by a teenage Vivaldi fan. Lord Tribulation’s own investigation takes him back to the drought summer of 1976, when Notting Hill’s million-pound flats were still North Kensington’s derelict bedsits and young people tried to change the world with rhythm, reggae and riots. An interesting, original novel, worth reading even if you don’t get half the references and in real life would block your ears to the noise.

Natural History

By Neil Cross

Simon & Schuster 279pp £11.99

I read this book on the day the West Country’s local daily ran a story about a family who bought and moved into a derelict Devon zoo. The real-life parallels made an even more unsettling read of a story that seems to lack the usual signifiers of mystery fiction, as it follows the unusual lives of an apparently perfect nuclear family. A woman zoologist and TV Don takes on a monkey sanctuary in North Devon and goes off to work in Africa while her ex-journalist husband and their two children turn the unsuccessful tourist attraction into a thriving wildlife park. A series of peculiar incidents add to an uneasy atmosphere, but it is not until the very end that the first overt crime is committed. Suddenly it becomes clear that the whole book has been a study of criminal behaviour by a psychopath and only on a second reading does every seemingly innocent incident shout its awful warning. Highly recommended.

The Messenger of Athens

By Anne Zouroudi

Bloomsbury 288pp £10.99

The god – a fat man in formal clothes – steps from the machine, in this case the ferry that is the only link between the outside world and the Greek island of Thiminos. This strange man, as inscrutable and mysterious at the end of the book as at the beginning, has come to secure justice for the shade of a woman whose battered body was found at the bottom of a cliff. In such a remote place modern forensic methods seem as irrelevant as the usual rituals of a twenty-first century legal system; the island is regulated by archaic superstition and traditional codes of honour, which mean justice can only be achieved by an unorthodox investigation. In fact this whole novel is unorthodox and could equally well be categorised as updated mythology; but it is absorbing, beautifully written and reveals the savage, superstitious reality behind the pretty façade that is all that most of us know of any Greek island.

Rounding the Mark

By Andrea Camilleri

Picador 288pp £12.99

Inspector Montalbano is a northern Italian in exile in Sicily, who with each successive novel becomes more pessimistic and cynical. This is the universal fate of European police detectives in fiction, if not in real life, and Montalbano, who began as a cheerful character, will probably soon be as morose and depressed as any Swede. Admittedly there is very little to smile about in a plot based on human trafficking, child abuse and slavery, but Camilleri has created such a realistic and likeable hero that his books are both instructive and enjoyable; and the Sicilian setting is fascinating. Technically this is a police procedural; actually, it is an insightful psychological study of a good man in a deviant world.

Second Violin

By John Lawton

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 432pp £17.99

Second Violin is the sixth book in the Frederick Troy series about a posh policeman before, during and after the Second World War. In chronological terms it is the first, and casts a fascinating new light on the background of characters and events referred to in previous volumes. Various historical episodes are shown with unusually vivid and sensitive insight: Austria on the day of the Nazi takeover, or Britain in 1940 when the government embarked on the panicky internment of enemy aliens in the Isle of Man, described as though from the author's personal experience. I have read and recommended all Lawton’s novels but this is not the one for a newcomer to the series to begin with, since the plot is not easy even for an enthusiast to follow. Never mind: the journey was enjoyable, even if I got lost on the way to its final destination.

Jacquot and the Fifteen

By Martin O'Brien

Headline 416pp £11.99

The number refers to members of a French rugby team that beat England at Twickenham twenty years before the story opens. The captain, now a captain of industry, organises a reunion in his palatial villa on the Côte d’Azur. One team member commits suicide there, and in the next few weeks, another half-dozen die. Each death looks natural and only Detective Inspector Jacquot (who scored the winning try) realises that his former teammates are being killed off. If you can swallow the unlikely idea that these relatively young men, all formerly famous and some still well-known, could die in so short a time without the authorities smelling a rat, and – even odder – without swarms of reporters buzzing around, and if you can also credit Jacquot’s indestructibility, then this is an enjoyable tale set in mouthwatering places.

Skin Privilege

By Karin Slaughter

Century 416pp £17.99

Dr Sara Linton is in trouble. She is being sued for millions in a malpractice suit and she has to help her police chief husband get one of his detectives out of jail in a small town in deepest Georgia. Soon both are caught up in a chaos of methamphetamine making, taking and trafficking, muddled up with white supremacy groups and long-buried family secrets. Slaughter specialises in forensics, terror, claustrophobic communities and the more uncivilised aspects of the Deep South. On the strength of books that are relentlessly frightening, melodramatic and disgusting she has become a mega-seller. But to me, following this story's sadism felt like masochism.

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