Jessica Mann

June 2008 Crime Round-up

  • Elizabeth George, 
  • Laurie R King, 
  • Quintin Jardine, 
  • Andrea Maria Schenkel, 
  • H R F Keating, 
  • Guillermo Martinez

Careless in Red

By Elizabeth George

Hodder & Stoughton 544pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Elizabeth George’s England often seems more English than an English writer’s, though I was never convinced by a Scotland Yard detective hero who just happens to be an Earl with a stately home in Cornwall, and whose love is a Lady. However the previous book exploded their long-running romance, ending with her violent death. This one opens with Lynley, demented by grief, tramping along a south-west coastal footpath. It takes a murder to restore him to real life, as he gets involved with the local police and their suspects. George is always readable but this book would have been a better one if rather shorter and with fewer indistinguishable characters with a distracting collection of unheard-of quasi-Cornish names – Cadan, Benesek, Madlyn, Daidre, Santo, Kerra, Dellen. However, her account of surfers’ lives, with their terrifying techniques and almost religious passion, is worth reading. And unlike most outsiders who choose Cornwall as a setting for fiction, George keeps clear of mummerset and mythology.

Touchstone

By Laurie R King

Poisoned Pen Press 350pp £15.95 order from our bookshop

Eight years after the end of the Great War, with the great strike looming, an American agent comes to England to work on a new kind of military intelligence. It depends on the almost supernatural sensitivity to other peoples’ thoughts of Bennett Gray, a grievously wounded war hero. Gray has gone to ground in remotest Cornwall, but is blackmailed out of it by a British secret service bully, while Agent Stuyvesant, who wants revenge on the bomber who killed his fiancée, is rather too good to be true as a character, though he’s not above using Gray’s aristocratic connections to lead him to the suspect via weekends in a ducal home. Stuyvesant’s investigation becomes inconveniently complicated by love, friendship and jealousy. The book contains some brilliant writing about war and its after-effects, some romantic images of upper-class mores and a genuinely unexpected solution, but the basic premise is more like science than mystery fiction. Enjoyable hokum.

Aftershock

By Quintin Jardine

Headline 448pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

Jardine’s take on the Edinburgh police is very different from Ian Rankin's famous portrayals of a loner fighting official indifference. In Jardine’s series, cooperation is the name of the game and senior policeman seem to be heroes. One of them was killed at the end of the previous volume and this one opens with everybody in mourning, from the widow, struggling simultaneously with a new baby and cancer, to a Deputy Chief Constable whose girlfriend is Scotland's First Minister. This is as much a human story of personal relationships between high officials as it is a mystery unravelling a series of murders of young women whose bodies have been left as though posed by an artist. It's not always easy to keep the police officers apart, as short chapters shift attention from one to the other, nor is their mutual society, help and comfort always entirely plausible, but the book is fast paced and interesting.

The Murder Farm

By Andrea Maria Schenkel

Quercus 192pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

Originally called Tannöd, this book is based on an actual unsolved crime that took place in Bavaria in 1922. A farmer, his wife, their widowed daughter, her son and daughter, and the family's maid were all murdered with a pickaxe. Schenkel recreates this crime, setting the story in the 1950s. Life in Germany was hard, people were mutually suspicious and the murdered family had been unpopular, but their ghastly fate terrifies their neighbourhood. The book takes the form of a series of witness statements, full of speculations, prejudices and memories; their testimony alternates with prayers and a kind of dialogue between the innocent and the guilty, the living and the dead. This is a pitiless portrait of inward-looking, bigoted peasants, beautifully written and equally well-translated. The book is gripping and, incidentally, has broken sales records in Germany. I admired but can't pretend that I enjoyed the excursion into the brutal backwoods.

Inspector Ghote’s First Case

By H R F Keating

Allison and Busby 288pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

Ghote’s return: here we see the legendary hero of twenty-three novels not as the veteran detective, but a young man. His first child is due any day, he has just heard of his promotion to Detective Inspector, and he embarks on his first case, the apparent suicide of an English woman. Ghote must go up to the hill-station where she and her husband lived, in a bungalow called ‘Primrose cottage’, and question the widower, who proves to be a cartoon-style archetype of the sahib who ‘stayed on’. But as he embarks on the technique which will serve him well throughout a long career, questioning and pestering, Ghote is constantly reminded that appearances are deceptive and that ‘foul deeds will rise’. This book has all the quality of gentle perceptiveness and wit that made Ghote so popular in the first place. Welcome back.

The Book of Murder

By Guillermo Martinez

Abacus 224pp 10.99 order from our bookshop

Another metaphysical mystery by the author of The Oxford Murders. A crime novelist, whose books seem ‘convoluted and unbelievable – until you reach the last page’, is accused of sexually harrassing his secretary. This causes his wife to leave him. Then his daughter dies. The crime novelist takes revenge on the secretary by murdering her family, one after another – or does he? Perhaps the deaths were accidents. Perhaps the whole suspicious saga is a lonely woman’s paranoia. This is crime fiction at its most drily intellectual, Hegel here – ‘Man is more than the series of his actions’ – and Henry James there, ‘constructing his entire oeuvre in the interstices between actions and taking as his central theme the question of what each character conjectures’. Brilliant and baffling; all is not explained.

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