Dirty Little Secret by Jon Stock; Black Roses by Jane Thynne; The Chosen Dead by M R Hall; Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller; The Specimen by Martha Lea; The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams; The Jackal’s Share by Chris Morgan Jones; Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

March 2013 Crime Round-Up

  • Jon Stock, 
  • Jane Thynne, 
  • M R Hall, 
  • Derek B Miller, 
  • Martha Lea, 
  • Charlotte Williams, 
  • Chris Morgan Jones, 
  • Elizabeth Haynes

Dirty Little Secret

By Jon Stock

Blue Door 448pp £18.99

This book would be incomprehensible to anyone who has not read its predecessor, Games Traitors Play, in which the insubordinate secret service hero Daniel Marchant bonds with the world’s most dangerous terrorist, both being sons, one legitimate, the other unacknowledged, of a former MI6 boss. The two men certainly resemble one another in their unwillingness to obey orders and their indifference to the survival or suffering of combatants and civilians. Having smuggled his murderous half-brother, an al-Qaeda member, into the UK, Marchant goes on the run with a beautiful CIA officer, skipping lightly between continents and countries. The tension is kept taut, so one hardly has time to notice how improbable it all is – not least in its attitude towards America, which at one point parks its tanks on MI6’s ‘Legoland’ lawn. The message seems to be that our ally is the real enemy.

Black Roses

By Jane Thynne

Simon & Schuster 480pp £12.99

It’s Berlin in 1933, and the Nazis have recently risen to power. Clara Vine, an actress with an English father and a dead German mother, has come to the city in the hope of film work. When Hitler decides that the wives of Nazi bigwigs should establish a fashion bureau, Clara is asked to model the designs. The wives come to trust her, but Clara has also been recruited by an intelligence agent from the British embassy, so her life becomes a dangerous juggling act. This is an exciting story and a subtle, original portrait of the early days of the Third Reich, when women were sent back to the home, the kitchen and the church, their ambitions confined to breeding more cannon fodder. Jane Thynne’s smooth writing, sensitive understanding of the era and sharp observations combine into an excellent historical thriller. Good news: it’s the first of a planned trilogy. I’m eager for the next.

The Chosen Dead

By M R Hall

Mantle 320pp £12.99

M R Hall’s previous four novels are very good. This one is even better. Jenny Cooper, the fictional Bristol coroner, is as stubborn as ever, insisting on investigating a man’s suicide and a teenage girl’s sudden death. Obstructed by her own managers, the authorities of the hospital where her ex-husband works, and some unidentified official heavies, Jenny is fortified by her certainty that nobody has the right to block a coroner’s investigation. Her inquiries take her into a terrifying brave new world of genetic codes and their manipulation. The deceased was an aid worker in Africa, a continent, Jenny is told, that ‘attracts idealists and creates realists’. He had seen a whole village wiped out and come dangerously close to discovering how it had happened. It is the indefatigable coroner who learns the truth and why it has been hidden. This exciting story raises eternal and unanswerable questions and teaches the eternal and unwelcome truth: ‘Life in its myriad forms is beautiful but beautiful does not imply nice. Life is not a benign force; in fact it is unique in the cosmos in being calculatingly ruthless.’ Life, and also some of the living. Nevertheless, the crusading coroner, neither ruthless nor calculating, comes out on top in the end.

Norwegian by Night

By Derek B Miller

Faber & Faber 304pp £12.99)

Our unusual hero, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Jewish-American widower and former US Marine, has moved to live with his granddaughter and her partner in Norway. When neighbours, refugees from the Balkan wars, murder a young woman, the resourceful old man escapes with her small son. Infirm he may be, but he was well trained half a century earlier. As Sheldon and the speechless boy go on the run, he converses with the ghosts of the past – the son who was killed in Vietnam, the friends who died in Korea and his late wife. Meanwhile the trusting Norwegian authorities don’t recognise the viciousness of the men to whom they have given asylum. A geriatric’s final fling might not sound like the material of a remarkable novel, but that is what Derek B Miller has written. Norwegian By Night is tragic, comic and gripping, and the only detail to keep it off prize shortlists is that thrillers don’t count as literary fiction.

The Specimen

By Martha Lea

Canongate 368pp £12.99

This cleverly atmospheric 19th-century melodrama begins with Gwen and Euphemia Carrick living alone with a maid and a gardener in a large house in Cornwall. Though physically almost indistinguishable, the sisters have very different interests. Euphemia is a medium who holds regular séances in the darkened drawing room. Gwen is a naturalist who knows every inch and every creature of the subtropical garden and the stony beach below. The story moves from Cornwall to the rainforests of Brazil, then back to London and a murder trial at the Old Bailey. Well researched and well written (except for the odd anachronism, such as ‘like’ instead of ‘as if’) this is an impressive first novel in a burgeoning Vic Lit subgenre of crime fiction.

The House on the Cliff

By Charlotte Williams

Macmillan 380pp £16.99

Charlotte Williams is a trainee psychotherapist, and her heroine, Jessica Mayhew, a practising one who makes mistakes no professional should make. Mayhew rashly allows herself to get embroiled in the family affairs of a client, a troubled young man with a famous father and an irrational phobia. Deciding that it’s necessary to find out the truth behind this neurosis, she goes far out of her way to make a house call, meeting his enigmatic mother, admiring his impressive cliff-top home; soon she realises that she fancies him. Meanwhile, back at her own house, problems are piling up with her stroppy teenage daughter and aggrieved husband. It’s a very domestic and feminine novel and none the worse for that – a good start to Williams’s writing career.

The Jackal’s Share

By Chris Morgan Jones

Mantle 320pp £16.99

The narrator, Ben Webster, works for a private-security agency specialising in business intelligence. They have been given an unusual commission. Their new client is an exiled Iranian billionaire who wants them to investigate his personal affairs. A firm with which he was doing a deal pulled out at the last minute. What libel about the billionaire has frightened them off? The quest takes our hero on a series of journeys, each more dangerous than the last (Dubai to Tehran, Switzerland to Morocco), and back to London in between. As complication is piled upon complication, and almost incomprehensible business deals are concluded and discussed, the story becomes gradually more difficult to follow, but this sophisticated, accomplished novel is worth the effort.

Human Remains

By Elizabeth Haynes

Myriad Editions 368pp £7.99

Elizabeth Haynes has worked as an intelligence officer for Kent police, so her description of her heroine’s life as a police analyst convinces. Annabel and Colin, who in alternate chapters tell the story, are loners and losers. Both think of themselves as outsiders. Yet to be completely alone is to be vulnerable, as Annabel gradually realises. Her data analysis reveals a startlingly high number of lonely local residents who have died in their own homes, their bodies not discovered before decomposition has set in. Having failed to persuade the police to take an interest, she is gradually drawn in to conducting her own amateurish investigation, though its climax is the least convincing part of an otherwise persuasive tale. Human Remains is Elizabeth Haynes’s third book. Original, well written and gripping, it is quite as good as its excellent predecessors, and that’s saying a lot.

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