The Pyramid by Henning Mankell; The Murder Stone by Louise Penny; The Edge of Madness by Michael Dobbs; A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré; Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery by James R Benn; The Winter Ground by Catriona McPherson - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

November 2008 Crime Round-up

  • Henning Mankell, 
  • Louise Penny, 
  • Michael Dobbs, 
  • John le Carré, 
  • James R Benn, 
  • Catriona McPherson

The Pyramid

By Henning Mankell

Harvill Secker 384pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Henning Mankell has written eight instalments in his series about Inspector Kurt Wallander, books which have been variations on the questions of ‘what is happening to the Swedish welfare state? Is the price we pay for Swedish democracy too high?’ Mankell’s foreword tells us that his hero has served as a kind of mouthpiece for the growing insecurity and anger of Swedish society. Outside Sweden, he has certainly served as a rather surprising instruction in what life is like over there. This book shows us what it was like back in 1969 and onwards, when Wallander was a young detective. It opens with his first case, and the volume consists of stories of varying length taking the detective’s career up to 1989, just before we first met him all those years ago as a senior police officer. This is not a book for newcomers to the series, being even more dry, humourless and dispiriting than the others, although like them it is illuminating and extremely well written (or translated). One for fans.

The Murder Stone

By Louise Penny

Headline 320pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

The setup is traditional, even old fashioned. A large, rich, inharmonious family is staying in a luxurious country hotel, and by convenient coincidence, Detective Chief Inspector Gamache and his wife happen to be on holiday there too. Everybody present, staff, residents and visitors, is cherishing some secret. The murder method is suitably baroque and the range of plausible suspects wide, though as usual in such books, the policeman is automatically exempted from suspicion and takes over the investigation. The story is unconvincing, but for British readers the setting in the backwoods of French-speaking Canada is agreeably exotic, and Louise Penny writes beautifully.

The Edge of Madness

By Michael Dobbs

Simon & Schuster 400pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

I’ve always enjoyed reading Dobbs, whose novels take an insider’s view of the upper echelons of government; previous subjects have included Winston Churchill during the War and the inner workings of the the House of Lords. Much less credible is this story of Chinese cyberterrorism. The idea of the British prime minister, the Russian president and the female president of the United States slipping their security leashes to meet in secret in a Scottish castle inhabited only by an old woman and a damaged child was more than I could swallow; so were scenes such as one in which the Queen, hostess to the American president at Balmoral, talks to her in an ‘all girls together’ voice. Harry Jones, politician and ex-SAS man, manages to avert worldwide disaster. Some interesting ideas but the story is over the top.

A Most Wanted Man

By John le Carré

Hodder & Stoughton 352pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

John le Carré’s characters are sketched with brilliantly sharp observation, an infallible ear for speech patterns and an unusual insight into human behaviour. No matter whether they are willing or unwilling, novices or old hands, criminal or well-meaning, they spring into being on the page. This book about ‘the war on terror’ shows good people doing bad things under pressure from bad people doing what they tell themselves are necessary things. But the underlying theme is American justice, which is ‘no-crap justice … justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course’. As always, le Carré is apt, artful and angry, but this book, though shorter, is less tautly written than usual.

Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery

By James R Benn

Soho Press 304pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Billy Boyle, a Boston cop like his dad, has been drafted. He gets himself out of fighting by being sent to London on the staff of a relation he’s never met. Uncle Ike, or General Dwight Eisenhower, needs Billy to identify a spy and soon the young cop finds himself living in a house where the Norwegian king and his government-in-exile are plotting the impending invasion of Norway. But soon Billy has to turn his policing skills to finding a murderer. A readable and rather sweet story slips down easily despite being full of clichés, melodrama and improbabilities, as well as simple mistakes. Even if Billy doesn’t know how kings are addressed, courtiers should know the difference between a highness and a majesty. The ‘Murder during the Second World War’ section of this genre is becoming crowded and in fictional terms this isn’t a patch on (for example) Foyle’s War, but all the same I liked Billy Boyle, enjoyed the book and look forward to the next.

The Winter Ground

By Catriona McPherson

Hodder & Stoughton 304pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

‘I am a detective, quite a successful one,’ Dandy Gilver tells her husband, who replies, ‘you are a wife and mother’. In Scotland in 1925 the two occupations might have seemed incompatible but nothing will deter Dandy from working at her ‘curious little sideline’. In this, her fourth adventure, she gets involved with a family circus that is passing the icy winter of 1925 at a remote estate in Perthshire. The rent was supposed to consist of a few private performances over Christmas, but it becomes obvious that somebody is determined to sabotage the show with increasingly cruel practical jokes and pranks. This is a complicated story of love, loss and ambition, sharply observed and often very witty.

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