Jessica Mann

February 2009 Crime Round-up

  • David Ebershoff, 
  • Tess Gerritsen, 
  • Elly Griffiths, 
  • Tom Bale, 
  • John Grisham, 
  • Patricia Cornwell, 
  • Graham Hurley, 
  • Lesley Horton, 
  • Lindsey Davis

The 19th Wife

By David Ebershoff

Doubleday 608pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Parallel polygamy, past and present, is the theme of this ambitious epic about the ‘latter day Saints’. A Mormon patriarch’s ‘Wife Number 19’ is accused of murdering her husband. Her son, who has managed to escape to a normal life in California, comes back to Utah to try to exonerate her. This contemporary mystery alternates with the fact-based tale of the leader and prophet Brigham Young’s nineteenth wife, who ran away from her ‘plural marriage’ and then led a crusade to outlaw polygamy in the United States. Each section is beautifully written, with the tones of voice perfectly reproduced. The parallel stories are genuinely enthralling and also cast light upon each other. But balancing a gripping modern crime story with a serious historical saga is an almost impossible task. Perversely, the reader’s problem is the very fact that they are both so good and gripping. I found the constant switches from one to the other increasingly unwelcome and halfway through started skipping in order to follow each story uninterrupted. Never mind; in or out of order, every word is well worth reading.

Keeping the Dead

By Tess Gerritsen

Bantam 368pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

More tales from the mortuary by another from the group of American women, all experts in pathology as well as storytelling, who have staked their claim to this burgeoning sub-genre of crime writing. Keeping the Dead is spiced up with some bizarre information about archaeology and anthropology. When the story begins, a media circus is gathering to record the autopsy of the most unusual corpse in Boston, a mummy that has lain forgotten in a museum’s dusty basement for many years. But the medical examiner soon discovers that the exhibit known as ‘madame X’ is not an ancient Egyptian after all. Hidden inside the body is evidence proving that it was the victim of a modern murder. As the well-preserved bodies of further victims are found in the museum the doctors and detectives realise that a dangerously clever criminal is still at work, busily adding to his macabre collection. Not Gerritsen’s best, but still a good read.

The Crossing Places

By Elly Griffiths

Quercus 304pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Forensic archaeology has become a fashionable sub-section of crime fiction (to declare an interest, I've written about it too). Ely Griffiths has produced a particularly good variation on this theme. Her heroine is an archaeologist who lectures at the University of North Norfolk, lives near a salt marsh overlooking the North Sea, and knows a lot of interesting facts about Iron Age ritual, human sacrifice and the archaeological monuments known as henges. When a child’s bones are found near an ancient site, Ruth is called in to advise the police and finds herself helping with their search for two missing girls. Her involvement with the investigation is closer than is plausible, but never mind; this is a cleverly plotted and extremely interesting first crime novel, highly recommended.

Skin and Bones

By Tom Bale

Preface 425pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Two people survive a massacre in a Sussex village: a small child who is left in a coma, and a young woman who is dreadfully wounded and whose parents were killed. As the only remaining eyewitness, she is determined to find and give evidence against the unidentified gunman. A journalist whose father also died in the massacre joins up with her and together they run the twin gauntlets of media interest and a determined criminal who is hunting them down to eliminate the threat they pose. The motive for the original crime seems to have something to do with a development proposal for the village, and the landowner’s tense family relationships make a complicated subplot. The story is not entirely plausible, even though this scenario is only too reminiscent of atrocities that have actually occurred. But the storytelling is so vigorous and lucid that I had read to the end before starting to quibble about the details.

The Associate

By John Grisham

Century 384pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The top law graduate of his year at Yale is taken on as an associate in the world’s largest law firm. What his employers don’t know is that he is being blackmailed to pass on the secrets of an epic trial worth billions of dollars. The firm may have high-tech security but the criminals have higher-tech surveillance. Caught in the middle, the young lawyer fights his way out of the trap using low-tech human ingenuity. Characterisation of the people in this story is perfunctory, almost non-existent; the most interesting ‘cast member’ is an inanimate one – the American legal system and the way it works in the highest-earning echelons of the New York bar. The description of the greedy and corrupt practices taken for granted in a leading law firm should beggar belief, but John Grisham’s stock in trade is intimate knowledge of this world, so when he writes of gargantuan billing, ludicrous working hours, and unrestrained greed and ambition it seems perfectly convincing; the action is far less so.

Scarpetta

By Patricia Cornwell

Little, Brown 512pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Cornwell has acquired countless fans, followers and imitators since starting to write her ‘inside the path lab’ books featuring Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta. This is the fifteenth book in the series. It is set in New York, features ‘little people’ (dwarves) and a full provision of disgusting details, baroque sadism and introspective investigators. Strictly for enthusiasts.

No Lovelier Death

By Graham Hurley

Orion 352pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

Another gripping chronicle of crime in Portsmouth, with good cops, bad cops, feral kids and a cop turned criminal. A vivid portrait of a decadent society in which even the local master criminal thinks crime is out of control, announcing (as he orders a murder), 'the country's going down the khazi and someone needs to get a handle on it'.

Twisted Tracks

By Lesley Horton

Orion 288pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Lesley Horton’s series of police procedurals is set in Yorkshire and feature a pair of policeman, local boy John Handford and immigrant Khalid Ali. This episode takes us into Handford's own secret past, disreputable in any case but absolutely inadmissible for a police officer. The adjective ‘gritty’ could have been invented for Horton’s interesting, serious novels.

Alexandria

By Lindsey Davis

Century 288pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The body in the library, ancient-Roman style. Marcus Didius Falco, the private eye in a toga, travels to Alexandria. His wife Helen wants to see the pyramids and the famous lighthouse, but the notion of combining an innocent mission with a holiday is rapidly exploded. They get involved with murder in the great library, a man-eating crocodile and a chase that culminates at the top of the 500-foot lighthouse. It’s all good fun and instructive with it.

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