We are in a golden age for crime fiction, according to The Bookseller, which also informs us that fewer titles appeared this year than last (that surprised me, given the shelves-full I receive) but that sales are healthy and the overall quality of writing even healthier. In a good year it’s hard to pick the best, but my personal favourites were: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (Bantam); The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees (Atlantic); The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill (Quercus); New England White by Stephen L Carter (Jonathan Cape); and one of this month’s books, written by the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, who died before seeing his fiction in print.
Larsson’s ‘millennium’ trilogy begins with this blockbuster story in which a crusading investigative journalist teams up with a silent, aggressive young woman who is some kind of genius. Between them they unravel the decades-old, and unexplained disappearance of a teenage girl. The Swedish title of this book can be translated literally as ‘Men Who Hated Women’, and sexual abuse is at the core of the story, but it also contains a portrait of a massively dysfunctional family and knowledgeable description of a financial scam. The style is leisurely and detailed, the plot interesting and credible but above all the heroine is splendidly original. Lisbeth Salander, designated by the authorities as a delinquent and an incompetent, is in fact a courageous, resourceful computer wizard – and for a non-Swedish reader, the way the Swedish legal system treats an adult who has been a ward of court is one of the oddest details of an extraordinary book.
A resentful divorcée discovers a skeleton buried in the garden of her new home in Boston. It seems to be that of a murder victim from the early nineteenth century. The story then jumps back to 1830, when Boston’s luxurious mansions stood right next to sinister slums full of penniless immigrants. In the famous hospitals and medical schools, maternity wards were full of indigent women dying from infections and Resurrection men were supplying corpses for students to dissect. When brutally mutilated bodies are found in deserted alleyways, panic grips the city and a poor but clever medical student is suspected by everyone except a penniless seventeen-year-old Irish girl. The dramatic and bloody historical storyline alternates with a more sedate contemporary investigation, but the connection is tenuous, and the changes of period and tempo clumsy. Gerritsen is always readable but this is not one of her best.
Gregory Norminton, in this novel set in a 1990s boarding school, describes a pitiless, old-fashioned establishment little different from those shown in schoolboy stories a hundred years ago. His narrator, after a chance encounter with a school contemporary, finds himself recalling those days. He finds unpleasant buried memories being revived as well as the love, hate, friendship and fear that exert such power in educational hothouses. He remembers the English teacher he admired, a boy he worshipped and the violent death that changed their lives. This is not a whodunnit or a whydunnit but a reassessment of what happened in order to reach a resolution of forgotten guilt and mystery. Not exactly exciting, but intelligent and beautifully written.
After a day in court with a client whose young daughter was burned to death before his eyes, solicitor Hugh Gwynne learns that his own wife has burned to death in their home. A ghastly coincidence? So Hugh is told by the fire officers and the police. But as he begins to clear up the remains of what had been a happy home he finds increasing reason to doubt that the fire was an accident, and to wonder why the authorities are so lax in investigating it. This is a scrupulous, well-imagined and sad tale, all the more convincing for its low-key, undramatic style.
Rumpole rides again, still fighting the good fight in defence of civil liberties and the rule of law. She Who Must Be Obeyed decides to become a barrister herself, Rumpole applies to take silk, and his colleagues try (again) to sack him. The book is too short and the plot too perfunctory, but read it all the same because there are not enough people fighting for our civil liberties these days, and John Mortimer puts the arguments with impeccable clarity and force. ASBOs, for example, punish activities which are not illegal and can lead on to imprisonment after a trial which, lacking the presumption of innocence, is by definition unfair. Here is the authentic libertarian voice rightly denouncing ‘an outrage to our great legal system’. We should take notice.
Describing as enjoyable a book filled with the details of torture may be a sign that one has read too many crime novels, but this is a good read despite beginning with an inventively mutilated corpse and being full of the appalling practices of mediaeval witch-hunters. The heroine is a lawyer and divorced mother of two children, working with an attractive former cop. They have been retained by a rich German couple to reconsider the murder of their student son, a graduate student who took a far more than theoretical interest in his subject, Icelandic witchcraft. The solution is guessable but the story is informative and interesting, and makes an encouraging start to a promised series.