The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer (Translated by Jamie Bulloch); Palace Council by Stephen L Carter; When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson; Perfect Night by Peter Grimsdale; The Likeness by Tana French; Vita Nuova by Magdalen Nabb; Mrs Maybrick by Victoria Blake - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

August 2008 Crime Round-up

  • Paulus Hochgatterer (Translated by Jamie Bulloch), 
  • Stephen L Carter, 
  • Kate Atkinson, 
  • Peter Grimsdale, 
  • Tana French, 
  • Magdalen Nabb, 
  • Victoria Blake

The Sweetness of Life

By Paulus Hochgatterer (Translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Maclehose Press 248pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

A seven-year-old finds her grandfather dead in the snow and stops speaking. Child psychiatrist Raffael Horn is called in to help her. At the same time, his friend the police commissioner identifies a long list of suspects many of whom are professionally known to Horn. Life is bitter and hard in this grim Alpine town, populated by a series of frightening and frightened characters. They include an abusive father, a suicidal postman, a mother who believes her baby is the devil, a monk who drowns the voices in his head with his iPod, and a teenage cat torturer. This is a scrupulous, serious novel, in which crime and detecton, though convincing, are mechanisms allowing the author to examine the psychology of his characters. Hochgatterer, a child psychiatrist himself, concludes that a psychiatrist is nothing more than a policeman who pretends he isn't one and that policeman have to be psychologists too. An impressive, cheerless tale.

Palace Council

By Stephen L Carter

Jonathan Cape 528pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

This is a brilliant literary thriller, packed with insight, intelligence and ideas. Stephen L Carter, a black professor of law at Yale, is writing novels that define the black experience in twentieth-century America. This one, his third, begins in 1952 when twenty men meet secretly to plan a scheme to install and control a future president of the United States. The conspiracy is gradually unveiled over twenty years by Eddie, one of America's most successful writers, and his lost love Aurelia. Both are from the black aristocracy of Harlem and semi-insiders in the political movements of the Sixties and Seventies. Carter writes with authority about the secret State and the corridors of power. Eye-opening and absorbing: I really couldn't put it down.

When Will There Be Good News?

By Kate Atkinson

Doubleday 352pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

This novel features, for the third time, the retired detective Jackson Brodie; it also marks the first appearance of a beguiling and original narrator, sixteen-year-old Reggie, a self-educated orphan genius who has a job as mother’s help to the immaculate Dr Hunter. These are people who, their lives having been touched by crime, are drawn together like iron to magnets. Thirty years ago a six-year-old girl was the only survivor of a random massacre. Now the murderer, having served his time, is released and immediately disappears. Is he hunting for his final victim? This interesting scenario is followed by a series of dramatic events and unlikely coincidences, involving people who are connected whether or not they know it. Atkinson’s writing is charming, and her style and wit always a delight, so this is a very enjoyable piece of fiction even though the crime plot, frankly, is a non-starter.

Perfect Night

By Peter Grimsdale

Orion 336pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Ten years ago a documentary filmmaker witnessed the death of an arms dealer in Sri Lanka and was himself badly injured. Fast forward to the present day, when Nick has become an unambitious archivist with gaps in his memory. As he begins to fill them in, he discovers that the truth is dangerous and is soon on the run from the police, the Secret Service, and other mysterious enemies. I wasn't entirely convinced by Nick’s superhuman stamina or by the stereotypically malign officialdom, but the story catches one up in it for the duration and the author has been a documentary editor and filmmaker himself, making the background authoritative. A thriller that really does thrill.

The Likeness

By Tana French

Hodder & Stoughton 560pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

The victim is a dead ringer for the detective; the detective has used a fake identity in a previous case; the victim has borrowed that identity. Since nobody can see any difference between them, the cop puts on the corpse’s clothes and takes her place in a crumbling Irish mansion with a group of beautiful graduate students, one of whom must be the murderer. Claustrophobic, conversational, clever and beautifully written; but rambling, repetitive and much too long. French's first novel appeared only a year ago, so perhaps she wrote with more haste, less concision; and while it is probably fair enough to allow one big coincidence per crime novel, this one is such a whopper that it undermines credulity.

Vita Nuova

By Magdalen Nabb

William Heinemann 272pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia is a Sicilian in Florence and therefore an outsider. The city he lives in may be beautiful and full of tourists, but for permanent residents it can be a frightening and in many ways sad place in which authority averts its eyes from corruption. Guarnaccia may not look like a knight in shining armour but in this book, not for the first time, he defies his own superiors and braves the dangerous underworld to rescue women and children from human traffickers. He is a Maigret-like character, intuitive as well as patient and observant, who relies more on psychology than brute force. It's sad to report that this is Guarnaccia’s final appearance, since Magdalen Nabb died last year.

Mrs Maybrick

By Victoria Blake

The National Archives 128pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

This column is usually devoted to invented crime, which I find better reading than most true stories. But there is something very appealing about this series of square, pocket-size hardbacks, in which novelists such as Edward Marston and Alanna Knight, and criminologists including Dr Katherine Watson, give accurate and balanced accounts of notorious crimes using material from the collections held in The National Archives at Kew. The books make lavish use of the original evidence, police reports and the extensive Home Office files on, among others, Dr Crippen, John Christie, Ruth Ellis and Jack the Ripper. Florence Maybrick was a nineteen-year-old Alabama belle when she married Liverpool cotton broker James Maybrick in 1881. She was convicted of his murder in 1889 after arsenic was found in his corpse. However, it was never established whether she administered the poison or whether Maybrick himself took the fatal dose. These are all interesting, tragic stories and make enlightening social history.

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