Jessica Mann

May 2008 Crime Round-up

  • Gyles Brandreth, 
  • John Harwood, 
  • Diane Wei Liang, 
  • Simon Hall, 
  • Chris Simms, 
  • Sally Hinchcliffe, 
  • Sue Grafton

Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death

By Gyles Brandreth

John Murray 416pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

I decided to have a month off from reading or reviewing any novel whose accompanying publicity promised descriptions of the rape, torture or dismemberment of a female victim. The result was to reduce by almost half this column’s potential subjects. Much of my reading temporarily returned to the golden age of reticence and tact, illusion and allusion, and for obvious reasons included a lot of historical novels and pastiche. Gyles Brandreth’s entertainment is an amusing and satisfactorily unlikely story featuring Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, a locked room, and Oscar Wilde in the role of series detective. In describing, rather well, the clubby, masculine world in which Edwardian gentlemen strutted their stuff, Brandreth hints at a nostalgia many men will share while leaving women readers to thank their stars for living a century later.

The Seance

By John Harwood

Jonathan Cape 294pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

At first this seems to be not so much a detective novel as a ghost story written in homage to M R James, in the style of Wilkie Collins and using language that, though not exactly old-fashioned, would have seemed perfectly proper to the Victorians. The setting is an isolated, ruined mansion near the coast of Suffolk; there are apparitions and other unnatural phenomena, as well as betrayal, blackmail and dangerous legacies; one beneficiary is warned, ‘sell the Hall unseen, burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt if you will; but never live there’. Even towards the end of the book, I still thought it was a creepy tale of the supernatural ineligible for this column. But the final revelation provided down-to-earth explanations for initially inexplicable phenomena. It is an elegant, original and exciting mystery story.

Paper Butterfly

By Diane Wei Liang

Picador 256pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

This is the second novel by an author who spent part of her childhood with her parents (both ‘intellectuals’) in a labour camp in remotest China. As a student in the 1980s she took part in the democracy movement and was at Tiananmen Square before escaping to the West. So there is raw authenticity in her description of life in China twenty years ago, and of contemporary Beijing where a young woman working illegally as a private eye is investigating a case whose roots are in that well-remembered past. Mei Wang is a splendid heroine, brave and sensible. In her own person she symbolises her country's combination of tradition, iconoclasm and the problems of moving from communism to capitalism. Mei moves easily between Westernised high-rises and unchanged old alleys, and as she interviews witnesses and makes her deductions she shows her readers a fascinating glimpse of the China visitors don't see.

The Death Pictures

By Simon Hall

Accent Press 348pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

I once had a high-profile job that involved sparring with news reporters in the West country. Having seen the local correspondents at work from, as it were, the other end, I took a special interest in this novel about a fictional TV reporter based in Plymouth, written by a real one. It's the story of two parallel enquiries, one the hunt for a rapist who targets young mothers, the other concerning the baroque arrangements made by a successful local artist for his own immortality. The actual crimes are mercifully inexplicit but the setting, in Plymouth, and the professional background are exactly described, with various more or less recognisable local details appearing under aliases – Advent for the Eden Project, for example. An interesting and enjoyable first novel.

Hell’s Fire

By Chris Simms

Orion 304pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

One can only describe this book in a way that makes it sound formulaic: a police procedural whose hero is a detective inspector conflicted between the demands of home and work, the latter complicated by professional rivalry: all well-used plot mechanisms. But Chris Simms’s novel is not at all stale or boring. He has taken a well-established form and given it fresh life by describing convincing, more or less sympathetic police detectives, by making their family life relevant to the story rather than an artificial background, and by inventing a persuasive, original plot based on the tension between the rival belief systems of Christianity and Wicca. Churches are being burnt down and apparently harmless people have been abducted or murdered. Realism about the underside of modern life is combined with psychological insight in an excellent thriller.

Out of a Clear Sky

By Sally Hinchcliffe

Macmillan 304pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Anyone who has seen the competitive passion of twitchers in full cry will find this sophisticated first novel both entertaining and credible. It follows the tribulations of a bird-watcher kicked out of the hide when her boyfriend finds a different companion. Manda’s revenge is subtle, since she holds the keys and passwords for the birders’ online database. But she gradually realises that somebody else has the keys and passwords to her own life, past and present. She takes to the road with her binoculars and bird books and the story ends where it began, with the ravens pecking at a body somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. Highly recommended.

T is for Trespass

By Sue Grafton

Macmillan 400pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Only six to go in Sue Grafton's popular alphabetic marathon. By this time readers will know whether they love or loathe the down-to-earth adventures of Kinsey Millhone, an altruistic, brave private eye with a messy private life. She may live in California but there's not much glamour in her world of shopping malls and rooming houses. In this case a bedridden neighbour becomes the prey of his resident carer. Kinsey and her geriatric landlord (always her most dependable assistant) get involved because they live next door. The assignment as usual ends up being dangerous and painful though the book is more a sociologically instructive portrait of suburban America than a thriller or whodunnit.

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