Jessica Mann

March 2008 Crime Round-up

  • Natasha Cooper, 
  • Mark Gimenez, 
  • David Wishart, 
  • Frances Fyfield, 
  • Marek Krajewski (Translated by Danusia Stok), 
  • Nicola Upson, 
  • Sam Baker

Poisoned Mind

By Natasha Cooper

Simon & Schuster 384pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

This is the ninth book featuring the delightful Trish Maguire as heroine. She combines the roles of detective, avenging angel and concerned friend, and brings to her cases a mixture of intuitive intelligence and lawyerly logic. In each book she learns (and consequently we also learn) something new – this time about an unusual kind of agricultural diversification into ‘tank farming’. When a farmer dies after an explosion in tanks of chemical waste, his widow sues for damages. But was it an accident? Had anyone been negligent, or were there more sinister facts behind the story? Trish, usually the underdog’s champion, represents big business this time and, until her private investigations uncover unexpected evidence, she almost hopes to lose her case. The book follows its progress, with excursions into Trish’s home life, green politics, and the problems of bringing up teenage boys in inner London. The book has a complex structure, handled with elegant skill – all most enjoyable.

The Perk

By Mark Gimenez

Sphere 448pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

A hotshot corporate lawyer, newly widowed, goes back home to Fredericksburg, Texas. Beck has been away for twenty-five years and the place has changed. He remembers it as cosy, stuffy and safe. Now there is tension between the descendants of the original white settlers from Germany and the new immigrants, legal or illegal, from Mexico. The Germans (as they are always called) behave like Nazis. They keep the town controlled under a reign of terror and when Beck becomes the local judge he finds that democracy and the legal system don't apply in deepest Texas; anyone related to the ruling families can get away with murder. Judge Beck changes all that by solving a four-year-old murder mystery and sticking to the letter of the law. The good guys are soppy, the bad ones are brutal bigots, the storyline wanders, but any addict of American legal thrillers will enjoy it all the same.

Illegally Dead

By David Wishart

Hodder & Stoughton 304pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the prithee and forsooth type of historical novel, David Wishart’s ancient-Roman series features a Philip Marlowe in a toga, Marcus Corvinus. In this episode he investigates the murder of a man described as ‘a senior partner in a law firm’. Corvinus relates his adventures in twenty-first-century colloquial speech, addressing ‘guys’ as ‘pal’; a used-slave salesman offers wares that are ‘cheap to run, keep their trade-in value well if you want to upgrade after two or three years to more streamlined model’; and there is a relentless stream of wisecracks as well as useful recipes for Roman delicacies such as mackerel-based fish pickle.

Blood from Stone

By Frances Fyfield

Sphere 336pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

Like Glenn Close in the TV series Damages, Marianne Shearer is a ball-breaking lawyer who stops at nothing to win her cases. The cross-examinations described here are so aggressive and rude that you would expect an English judge to stop them. But Fyfield, being a senior lawyer herself, knows what is allowed in court and, being a genuinely original and imaginative writer, she offers a fascinating read. Wielding a scalpel-like pen she neatly dissects her characters, exposing their compromises and lies with scientific precision. The story opens with the suicide of a woman who seemed to be without a conscience, and widens out into a study of those she came into contact with in a complicated structure of shifting viewpoints. Everyone involved is damaged and some are dangerous. An admirable crime novel but a chilling one.

Death in Breslau

By Marek Krajewski (Translated by Danusia Stok)

MacLehose Press 268pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

The title itself shows that this is a historical novel, for Breslau, the capital of Silesia and one of Imperial Germany's major cities, is now Wroclaw and has been part of Poland since the end of World War II. To me the name has the cosy, nostalgic associations of my mother’s memories of her childhood there. Luckily she had emigrated by late 1933, when this book is set, with the city under the malevolent control of the Gestapo. Kriminaldirektor Mock hunts down, in a squalid, anti-Semitic underworld, the perpetrator of a peculiarly macabre murder involving scorpions, satanic sects and insanity. Everybody that Mock encounters is corrupt: ministers, aristocrats, administrators and other police officers; every witness and informant is in the grip of fear and greed; and torture and murder are everyday occurrences. I found this dark, sinister novel disconcerting and fascinating.

An Expert in Murder

By Nicola Upson

Faber & Faber 352pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Edward VII and Oscar Wilde are only two of the many historical figures who have done time as fictional sleuths. Unlike that pair of show-offs, Josephine Tey (the pseudonym, along with Gordon Daviot, of novelist Elizabeth Mackintosh) was an unusually reticent and secretive woman about whose private life not much is known. Upson sets her story in 1934, turning ‘Josephine Tey’ into a character endowed with attributes that history does not relate, and placing her in the middle of a theatrical murder as sidekick to a posh detective. An improbably baroque plot, some entertaining characters and a well-researched background (apart from some linguistic anachronisms) add up to an enjoyable pastiche of a golden-age mystery. But Mackintosh herself would not have approved.

This Year’s Model

By Sam Baker

Orion 352pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

High fashion glossies don't usually employ ex-tabloid journalists, and nobody seems quite sure why the investigative reporter Annie Anderson was offered a job with Handbag magazine or why she took it. But she turns out to be on the trail of a good story: her best friend's supermodel sister is missing, and Annie goes hunting for her. The search takes her to Japan, where juvenile human X-rays can always find work, if not for cameras or catwalks then as modern geishas. The Tokyo Run is tough and rough, and nobody is interested in the girls who drop out or disappear, not even when there's a serial killer on the loose. This book is a fascinating exposé of the crazy, cruel world of international fashion modelling by an author who has edited a series of glossy women's magazines and knows what she's talking about.

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