St Petersburg in 1914: a chess tournament, revolutionaries, spies, terrorism, anti-Semitism and the looming war. It’s a fertile setting for a crime novel, though Ronan Bennett has more exalted ambitions, ‘to address in fiction the big issues confronting us all today’. The title describes the position in a game of chess when any move would bring defeat, and it represents that of the psychoanalyst hero as he tries to get himself and his daughter out of the clutches of the authorities without pulling everything in their previously comfortable lives down around their heads. Atmospheric, interesting, beautifully written but somehow lacking the tension and grip a book needs to be a good thriller as well as a good novel.
It’s all change in British crime fiction. Reginald Hill nearly killed off Andy Dalziel and Elizabeth George actually killed off her longterm heroine. Now Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus is retiring. His investigation of the murder of a Russian poet also represents the last chance to tie up the loose ends of his long, painful but symbiotic relationship with the local gangster Big Ger Cafferty, and no little obstacles like police regulations or the law are going to stop him. The detection in these fascinating books has always been secondary to the relationships between detectives and the portrait of Edinburgh (one could follow all the imagined steps on those real pavements). Rankin’s plutocrats, now often Russian, seem to be corrupt by definition, and Rebus has no illusions about the politicians and money manipulators who ‘run Edinburgh’. Perhaps our hero should stand for the Scottish Parliament.
‘Anyone who tells you that life isn't a constant series of manipulations is either a liar or a fool. The real difference isn’t between manipulating and not manipulating. The difference is between manipulating consciously and manipulating unconsciously.’ A young man learns this too late, as his friend has turned him (at least for a while) from hard-working student into criminal layabout, from an innocent boy into a man capable of hiding behind his words and gestures to take in his family, friends and victims. It's a vivid portrait of an unexpectedly dreary small town in Italy, a convincing analysis of the psychological process of corruption, and it taught me how to do the three-card trick.
An original and elegant variant on a police procedural. Jane Heather bases her story on the death of a seventeen-year-old prostitute, but this is a psychological novel in which character and motivation is more interesting than whodunnit. The scene moves between a seedy Midlands town and the island of Iona to which the suspect’s wife has fled with her small daughter, both settings beautifully evoked. The narrative takes in the victim’s diary, which reveals a shattered, doomed life, as well as the fantasies of the child whose dreams seem to derive from some underworld of Celtic folklore. This nicely produced slim volume comes from a new independent publisher: a good start.
Merrily Watkins is an unconventional parson. She scandalises her parishioners by sleeping with her pop musician boyfriend, and her clever, rebellious daughter won't go to church. She is also an exorcist, or, as it is politely phrased, a deliverance consultant. Her patch is the Welsh border area where superstition and myths survive over centuries, and this modern woman must deal with things not dreamt of in most modern philosophy. Suspending disbelief was not difficult in previous books since the heroine herself, a sharp and original character, is always so full of self-doubt, but this time I got lost in a plot which combines long-lived family feuds, ghosts and emanations, Templars, Freemasons, the Secret Service, the Church of England hierarchy and the Duchy of Cornwall. It’s all a bit much.
We are not told whether the author has aboriginal ancestors, or whether he’s just done brilliantly intuitive research. Nor would I know if his portrait of life in central Australia is in fact a fabrication. All that matters to the reader is the narrative drive in which every word comes over as vividly as an eyewitness’s description of something that happened half an hour ago. Emily Tempest is black, bloody-minded, brilliant and brave. She returns to Moonlight Downs, where she grew up half in her father’s white world and half in her black mother’s community, and brings with her traditional insights, a university-trained mind and a knack for upsetting the status quo. Highly recommended to anyone who doesn't mind strong language or a certain amount of social realism; this is a clever murder story in a fascinatingly filthy setting
A caper which takes in New York, Tokyo, Paris and points east, with passing glances at the world's iconic works of art – genuine or forged. This is yet another adventure story centred on the Mona Lisa, though whether it will bring the Da Vinci Code crowds back to the Louvre probably depends on how it’s filmed. With a reformed art thief as hero, a black and beautiful FBI agent as heroine, and physical feats as implausible as James Bond’s, the book is quite frankly nonsense, the characters cardboard and the story impossible. But, and it's a big but, even while thinking so, I had to finish it. This writer may not have plausibility or style but he knows how to grip.
One fine afternoon, a young woman called Cora Bender, having a picnic beside a lake with her husband and son, stabs a total stranger to death in full view of his friends and her family. Obviously it is a case without doubt: Cora admits what she has done, there were witnesses galore, and the police should be able to close the file quickly. But the Commissioner begins his own investigation, descending with Cora into the hell of her life as the child of a religious fanatic and an abuser. This novel by one of Germany's most successful crime writers is wonderfully written, gripping, full of psychological insight but (at least to me) so truthful about humanity's underside as to be depressing rather than enjoyable.