The Coroner by M R Hall; And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks by William Burroughs & Jack Kerouac; Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell; Blood Runs Cold by Alex Barclay; Nothing to Fear by Matthew d’Ancona; The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

December 2008 Crime Round-up

  • M R Hall, 
  • William Burroughs & Jack Kerouac, 
  • Josh Bazell, 
  • Alex Barclay, 
  • Matthew d’Ancona, 
  • Inger Ash Wolfe

The Coroner

By M R Hall

Macmillan 432pp £10

It’s a tribute to the author’s skill that I read this book supposing it to be autobiographical. Then I discovered that it is by a male former barrister. He really gets under the skin of his heroine, a coroner. Newly appointed to the district of Severn Vale she is determined to reform the office’s antiquated customs to conform to modern standards required by the Ministry of Justice. But the coroner is distracted by two cases her dead predecessor inexplicably mishandled. She insists on re-opening the inquiry into the death of a juvenile prisoner in a privatised facility, facing down bureaucratic resistance, a journalist’s aggression, her ex-husband’s hostility and her own secret addiction. The background of her private life and the foreground of an important public office combine with good and imaginative writing (and some political implications) to make an outstandingly interesting first novel.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks

By William Burroughs & Jack Kerouac

Penguin Classics 224pp £20

In 1944 two as yet unpublished writers, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, were arrested as accessories to the murder of one of their friends by another. Later that year they wrote alternate chapters of a hard-boiled crime novel based on their experience. The true story was fictionalised but no publisher would take the novel, which, as Burroughs admitted decades later, ‘had no commercial possibilities’ since it was not sensational enough to be a thriller, nor well written and interesting enough to make it as literature. Those flaws are still obvious, but the ‘murder that gave birth to the Beats’ has, by now, legendary status. Anyone interested in the making of the Beat generation will be fascinated by this survival from its beginnings.

Beat the Reaper

By Josh Bazell

William Heinemann 304pp £12.99

If this book had been a film, I’d have been hiding my eyes for half of it. As it is, this cross between House and The Sopranos kept me squeamishly reading. The narrator is Peter Brown, a doctor in a Manhattan hospital. He is a brilliant diagnostician and at work seems to be admirably humane. But he is in hiding from former associates who knew him as a Mafia hit man. When he is recognised by a patient at his hospital, keeping himself and his patient alive becomes a fast and furious adventure that ends with an unforgettably disgusting scene in which our hero conducts an autofibulectomy in order to use his own bone as a weapon. The book is original and funny – but also absolutely appalling.

Blood Runs Cold

By Alex Barclay

HarperCollins 496pp £6.99

A well-written thriller by an Irish author, but set in deep- frozen Colorado where an FBI agent’s body is found buried in the snow of Quandary Peak. A ‘Fibby’ colleague, the hard-drinking, sexy Agent Ren Bryce, investigates, though she is hindered by her own nightmares, pressure from Washington and an almost total lack of leads. Not until summer does Quandary Park give up its secrets. I found it quite difficult to keep all the characters apart, and very difficult indeed to believe in Ren’s sex life with a suspect, but the scene is convincingly set and the story well told.

Nothing to Fear

By Matthew d’Ancona

Hodder & Stoughton 272pp £16.99

A modern version of the Bluebeard story crossed with a traditional ‘maiden in peril’ mystery. The heroine, a newly divorced academic studying folk and fairy tales, moves into a new house. She meets the neighbours, on one side a sinister elderly couple, on the other an attractive but enigmatic young bachelor, who quickly becomes her lover. But there is a locked room in his house and he makes her promise not to try to get in. Needless to say, getting in is the first thing she does only to realise that Prince Charming is actually Bluebeard. Of course, this being a crime novel, nobody else in her life is what they seem either. Traditional dangers set firmly in the modern world, skilfully written.

The Calling

By Inger Ash Wolfe

Bantam 512pp £6.99

This book has provoked controversy, since there is already a well-established crime novelist called Inger Wolf. The tactless choice of pseudonym by ‘a prominent North American literary novelist’ (not identified, at the time of writing) is attracting more publicity than the book itself, which is a pity as it is perfectly gripping though also, quite often, disgusting. It is a clever, well-written serial/ritual-murderer tale set in remotest rural Canada, but the most original feature of the story is its principal detective, the police inspector in a small town. She is a plain and overweight woman in her sixties. With her bad back, demanding mother, hostile boss and bickering staff, Hazel Micallef is a splendid recruit to the ranks of fictional detectives.

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