First of this month’s big names is the redoubtable Baroness James, who returns to Dorset and the golden age ‘murder at the manor’ detective novel. But she writes about solemn subjects and serious people in a way that traditional novelists seldom did. This manor has been converted into a clinic where its owner, a famous plastic surgeon, conducts his private practice. The victim is a notorious investigative journalist, the suspects are the servants and helpers, and the detective is Adam Dalgleish, about to be married (at last) and possibly about to retire from Scotland Yard. The novel has P D James’s trademarks – the moral scrupulousness, the accuracy of language, and an understanding of the spreading implications of murder and its effect on a small group of people, and how in that instant everything changes. In contrast with the traditional mysteries that this book superficially resembles, we know that for these characters nothing will ever be the same again.
It was always going to be difficult for Ian Rankin to follow his successful Rebus series, which ended (for the time being at least) when the Edinburgh policeman retired at the end of last year’s book. Doors Open, though also set in Edinburgh, is in a very different style. It features an unlikely gang and equally unlikely heist. A retired self-made software millionaire who is bored, a merchant banker who is discontented and a disappointed academic conspire to commission copies of Scottish artworks and substitute them for the originals stored in a vault. Add a gangland boss, some nameless rivals and the forger’s greedy girlfriend and the best laid plans quickly go pear-shaped. This semi-comic caper seems rather laboured, but is redeemed by the sharp observation of life in Scotland’s capital.
A civil servant called Richard Eusden is summoned by his childhood friend who is dying of a brain tumour and needs an immediate favour, mysteriously undefined. It turns out to involve lots of chasing around Germany, Belgium and several Scandinavian countries, and a good many train journeys. Everybody involved except for Eusden himself is double, triple, and quadruple crossing everybody else, all desperate to acquire the evidence that will show the true identity of the woman who might have been the Russian Archduchess Anastasia. Though she has been dead for years the material evidence is worth enough for armies of gunmen and tricksters to use Eusden as a punching bag or send him chasing through icy Nordic landscapes. As always, Goddard writes and plots with accurate, correct precision; you feel he knows every setting and was witness to every scene.
In this modern take on the ‘long-lost heir’ story, we are whisked to and fro both in time – from 1984, the year of the miners’s strike, to the present day – and also geographically: the story keeps switching from an ex-mining village via a plutocrat’s Scottish castle and villas in Tuscany to the prosaic offices of the Cold Case Review Team. The tycoon and his goons, the young woman journalist, and the former miners have the appropriate qualities of, respectively, arrogance, ambition and bitterness. But Detective Inspector Karen Pirie is a splendidly complex heroine and the versatile Val McDermid, who has also written novels full of genuinely shocking explicit details, shows in this book that she doesn’t need to dwell on gory details to write a page-turner.
The author went to Bosnia after Oxford, was based in Sarajevo during the siege and began her career as a journalist there, before turning into a war correspondent for various national papers; so did her heroine, ‘Molly Taylor’, who tells this passionate story of love and loss, of war and a bitter peace. The war in the Balkans was criminal on so many levels that this book would in any case have to count as a crime novel but in the end there is also a more conventional murder mystery and investigation, with the requisite hints and clues. More importantly, it’s a beautifully written, atmospheric tragedy by an author who knows what she’s talking about. Highly recommended.
This could have been be a perfectly normal thriller, in which two FBI agents investigate what look like serial murders of anorexic college students in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, the book is part of a new and irritating sub-genre in which the detective, always female, finds herself watching victims, always female, being murdered or tortured, because she has some kind of second sight. Just one of her superiors believes in her visions, and will rely on them as a detection tool. The others remain sceptical and unimpressed, and never eat their words, possibly because the ability is not particularly useful. For one thing, the vision never comes supplied with names or addresses. But bringing in the supernatural does allow the author (or TV producer) to dwell in explicitly gory detail on what’s happened, or happening, to the victim. Well written but silly.