Fred Vargas is the pen-name of a woman archaeologist whose four previous thrillers have made her the best-known French-language crime writer since Simenon. This new novel does deserve its due success, but only just, for the baroque plot, driven along by Commissaire Adamsberg's inexplicable flashes of intuition, takes the reader through quicksands of dottiness and unlikeliness, and the novel nearly sinks into them. There is a surfeit of meaningful or magic objects, as stones, antlers, cats hair and bones are collected for mysterious purposes, but the series of murders is earthy enough, and the eccentric Adamsberg is a very engaging character. Vargas’s professions overlap when an expert is called in to an exhumation: ‘We need someone who can hear the sound of the earth … an archaeologist, or a shit-stirrer, if you prefer.’
The murder is brutal, its investigation thorough, its motive rooted in the legacy of the Second World War – but the selling point of this delightful book is its setting in the legendary France profonde, where market stalls offer goats cheese and foie gras, home-made jam, and oils flavoured with walnuts and truffles, where steaks are timed to perfection by singing the Marseillaise, and menus composed as skilfully as Martin Walker's prose. He is a prize-winning political journalist, so his portrait of the Dordogne is more than gastronomy and painted caves. The commune he describes has its complement of troublemakers, racists, drug-dealers and interfering bureaucrats, and in describing the investigation of the murder of a North African immigrant, Walker brings to life both a complete community and the chief of police who is its protector, teacher and friend. This book’s ingredients are combined as carefully as Bruno's good meals. Second helpings, please!
As much faction as fiction, this book delivers a lesson in the history of medicine. Most of the characters are historical figures: American pioneers of surgery, Doctors Halsted and Osler; the painter Thomas Eakins; and a variety of residents of 19th-century Philadelphia. A brilliant young doctor is the hero, as he investigates the disappearance of a body from the hospital morgue and finds himself involved in a murder mystery that encompasses high life in Philadelphia's richest mansions and the squalor of the lowest slums. It is an easy, interesting read, full of information. I’ve learnt a lot about, for example, the development of rubber gloves, anaesthetics and medical ethics. But the dialogue is wooden and the scene-setting more conscientious than inspired.
Another murder in the Shetlands: White Nights follows Raven Black, for which Ann Cleeves won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for best crime novel in 2006. Remote and enclosed, Shetland is an excellent background for crime fiction; incidental details show how dangerously claustrophobic life can be in a very small community. Descriptions of the beautiful but not always hospitable landscape and the uncanniness of Northern midsummer, when birds sing at midnight and the sun never sets, add richness to the novel. The victim is an unknown Englishman, the investigation conducted by the local detective Jimmy Perez in uncomfortable alliance with an officer imported from the mainland, and the witnesses are the well-described inhabitants of the little island. A carefully constructed, atmospheric and interesting mystery.
Concerned middle-class parents use sophisticated electronics to keep a close watch on their sixteen-year-old son. This is understandable, given that one of his classmates recently committed suicide, but spies, like eavesdroppers, often wish they hadn't looked or listened, and this book is an awful warning against using the software and equipment it describes. It's also an extremely complicated and quite nasty story about what suburban soccer-moms and dads do when things go wrong. Not his best, but Coben is still one of America's masters of the hook, the twist and the surprise ending.
This despatch from the front line shows policing at its most sordid. Karen Campbell was born and educated and became a police officer in Glasgow, which makes her better qualified than most to write in the ‘tartan noir’ genre. Her book rings depressingly true. It follows a woman sergeant in a new job. She is to take charge of policing the sex trade, drug-dealing and violence that go on in the streets of Glasgow’s underworld. At the same time she finds herself dealing with corruption and jealousies in her own new team. This account of the murder of prostitutes, racial tension and the behaviour of dysfunctional police officers reads like front-line reportage and probably is – not so much literature as raw sociology.
The late R D Wingfield always said that the actor David Jason was not ‘his Frost’, but it's impossible for a reader to keep the written and televised images apart. This posthumously published novel includes the usual ingredients: inter-cop rivalry, the hero’s schoolboy-style disobedience, and the squalor of provincial policing. Frost has simultaneously to deal with: a multiple rapist; poisoned stock in the local supermarket; a self-confessed murderer who has forgotten where he hid the dismembered body of his wife; two missing girls; his own problems with his hostile superintendent and a scheming colleague – all this on top of his haunting guilt about his own dead wife. The exhausted Frost staggers between cases, at once insubordinate and dependable; it's implausible and often funny, one you’ll either like or loathe.