I recently used an extract from one of Val McDermid’s books to illustrate the brutality that is increasingly common in entertainment fiction; I also remarked that her good writing made the nastiness even nastier. In the normal course of events it is uncommon for a style to be toned down. But that’s what seems to have happened in the fifth novel in this series, set in ‘Bradfield’, featuring the psychologist Tony Hill and his more-than-a-friend DCI Carol Jordan. Each of the increasingly familiar members of the detective team has a back story which faithful readers will remember. The plot concerns one of those fictional regulars and factual rarities: the serial killer who is by definition bonkers. With McDermid’s usual ingredients of fear, revulsion, ingenuity and heroism but without too much explicit sadism, this book is all the more gripping because some holds are barred.
If it’s a bit of a comedown for a former Director-General of MI5 to write routine spy thrillers, it is even more of a comedown for her MI5 operative-heroine to be assigned to babysit a Russian oligarch who has grown rich beyond the dreams of avarice from some dodgy deals and is now turning his dangerous attention to a new ambition, cornering the market in paintings by a particular Russian artist. The writing is more workmanlike than elegant, and the plotting plodding but in the obiter dicta the author’s expertise becomes fascinating. It’s not just that she knows there are more spies operating in London today than during the height of the Cold War, nor simply on account of the portrayal of secret operatives as ‘anxious twitterers’ or just plain twits. But if this is an authentic portrayal of our protectors’ behaviour, discussions and deductions behind those secret doors, then it’s really scary.
As a fantasy about a beautiful boy and his sex life Murder Most Fab is filthy and funny; but as a crime novel it’s a disaster, with a slow start, irrelevant padding and guessable conclusion. It purports to be the memoirs of a male prostitute called Johnny Debonair who murdered three of his clients. There is little mystery and no suspense, and by far the most interesting part of the book is the instructive detail about what gay men do in bed. The account of life as a television megastar, and how our naughty hero became one, will fascinate Julian Clary’s fans too. Of course he is ‘one of Britain's most loved entertainers’ (to quote the book’s jacket) and his book has lovable aspects too. But that’s not enough to make good crime fiction.
An excellent updated variant on the traditional locked-room, closed-circle mystery. The hero narrator, a doctor and pathologist, finds himself marooned on an island in the Outer Hebrides with a storm raging, communications down, and an unidentified murderer decimating the small population. In an atmospheric, exciting story, the enclosed village community is as typecast as Balamory’s and as suspicious as a group assembled in one of Agatha Christie’s snowbound manor houses, while the information about forensic medicine is as instructive as Patricia Cornwell’s, telling far more than I ever wanted to know about the effect of fire on a human body, dead or alive. And the culprit even turns out to be the least likely person
British novelists who have a political subtext usually prefer subtle implication to in-your-face exposition. The American Daniel Silva (re-using a Gavin Lyall title) has purposely designed this story to hammer home an explicit warning about the fundamentalist Islamist time bomb now ticking in all European countries and especially in the UK. The hero is an Israeli art restorer, assassin and spy; he also seems virtually indestructible, surviving a remarkable amount of physical punishment as he breathlessly criss-crosses the world in private jets in the search for the kidnapped daughter of the American ambassador to London. It is an exciting, entertaining novel with a terrifying message, though as a thriller it sags under the heavy burden of contemporary politics.
Taken as crime fiction, Sampson’s third novel is original, fast paced and clever: taken as a beginner's guide to the enigma that is modern China, this is an outstandingly interesting description of life in Beijing from two utterly different angles. We see the busy, baffling society from the viewpoint of a Marlowe-style Chinese private eye, an honest, cussed altruist who deals equally with paupers and millionaires. He is of the generation that remembers what it was to vanish into police custody. In alternate chapters we follow a British woman journalist from ‘the corporation’ who endangers others through her naivety about what can and can't be done in a police state. Like the native Chinese born after the relaxation of the 1980s, she is ‘taken by surprise when the system snapped its jaws around them and took them down into its belly’. The author lives in Beijing and was The Times correspondent there, so her own experience lends authority to a gripping mystery.
There is no end to the more or less useful information one derives from crime fiction. This interesting and enjoyable novel has taught me a good deal about botany and a rare medical condition suffered by Detective Chief Inspector Mark Lapslie, who has been sidelined because he suffers from synaesthesia. His is not the relatively common and benign version in which colours are associated with days of the week. Lapslie’s taste buds keep him on a rollercoaster of unexpected sensations – a Beatles song tastes of rotting meat, a ring tone of coffee. Clearly, the ideal detective to track down an apparently respectable elderly lady who is a serial killer, identity thief and an expert on plant poisons. She puts them to ingenious use in an equally ingenious story.