The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer; The Black Monastery by Stav Sherez; Black Out by Lisa Unger; Drood by Dan Simmons; Back to the Coast by Saskia Noort; The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

April 2009 Crime Round-up

  • Olen Steinhauer, 
  • Stav Sherez, 
  • Lisa Unger, 
  • Dan Simmons, 
  • Saskia Noort, 
  • Tom Rob Smith

The Tourist

By Olen Steinhauer

HarperCollins 396pp £20 order from our bookshop

This is a spy novel for our times, as America's competing security agencies find that the enemy is no longer just a foreign power, but one another. The story is both fascinating and exciting. It follows an undercover agent – a man with many false identities and no real one – who reverts from a CIA desk job to his former skill and calling as an authorised killer. In his professional doubletalk, a ‘tourist’ is an assassin who works blindly to order, a craftsman who is either 'the pinnacle of contemporary autonomous intelligence work', or a duped tool, or – as this one eventually realises – a man whose primary function is to stay alive, which means ensuring that others don't. This is one of those morally ambiguous works of fiction that you can only hope is not based on fact. Its theme is broken myths – of loyalty, virtue, identity and love – and its message is that an empire needs men with iron guts, who no longer feel any need to make excuses about spreading democracy with a gun, who ‘can bomb and maim and torture to our hearts’ content because only the terrorists are prepared to stand up to us'. This Tourist is not a criminal. He is the ‘defender of the free world'. 

The Black Monastery

By Stav Sherez

Faber & Faber 320pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Another Greek island mystery, but this one is no travelogue. Palassos holds little pleasure for a visitor. From the grimy, greedy port village where visitors disembark, to the dangerous and sinister interior, Palassos is a place to get away from – which is exactly what Nikos tried to do when he left to be a policeman in Athens thirty years before. Now he's come back home for the final years of his career, as the island’s police chief. History repeats itself, however. A child is ritually murdered in a macabre re-enactment of two unsolved murders committed thirty-three years previously. As Nikos begins his last investigation, he finds himself working in parallel with two English visitors, one a successful crime novelist, the other an aspiring one, both of whom become involved in the story. A dark, disgusting, disquieting tale, more interesting than enjoyable.

Black Out

By Lisa Unger

Arrow 400pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

A tricksy tale told in first person by Annie aka Ophelia, whose alternative identities seem equally perilous. As one, she’s fleeing from an abusive stepfather, as the other she’s terrified of her own past and the unthinkable things she has seen or done. Yet when first encountered, Annie Powers is rich, happily married, and living in a Floridan paradise with a perfect daughter. Why does she glimpse familiar figures on the dark beach, what are the hideous memories seething in her subconscious, and why is she so afraid for her daughter, Victory? As the narrative is a series of flashbacks, told by the fugitive heroine, there is never any doubt that darkness and danger are waiting in each chapter. But it’s a little formulaic, as though an outline listed the staple characters – bad mother, absent father, lost child, rescuer, destroyer – and a cast list was designed to match them. The story works, in fictional terms, but with a slackening of tension as characters fulfil preordained roles rather than developing in a credible way.


By Dan Simmons

Quercus 784pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

‘Even sane men – eminently sane men, public men – have dark sides which they show to no one.’ So says Wilkie Collins, the narrator of this sinister elaboration of a story that begins with historical facts: that Charles Dickens, at the peak of his fame and popularity, was on a train that crashed, killing most of its passengers; and that Collins was his friend and rival. In this story, Dickens’s personality and writing (particularly the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood) darkens after the accident. He begins to lead a double life, making nightly forays into London’s most squalid slums and becoming increasingly obsessed with murder, opium, disguises and all the paraphernalia of death. The tone of Collins’s jealous, pernickety narration and the descriptions of an appalling underworld are very well done, but in writing this historical pastiche Dan Simmons, a wonderfully imaginative science fiction writer, has been weighed down by careful research and has shoehorned in its results, making the book far too long and in places stodgily padded with information-laden observations. 

Back to the Coast

By Saskia Noort

Bitter Lemon Press 235pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

Maria is a mess. A night-club singer by profession (though not a very good one), she has two children from two failed relationships, a depressive ex-boyfriend who keeps reappearing, and endless money problems. She's just had an abortion and now it looks as though she's become the target of a stalker. First she gets threatening letters, next someone sends her graphic pictures of aborted foetuses, and then a parcel arrives containing a dead rat. The police won't take any notice until her house burns down one night. Luckily nobody was there; Maria and her children had left Amsterdam to take refuge with her childless sister in their old family home by the sea – where, inevitably, the danger follows. It's a neat story and a persuasive portrait of life in contemporary Holland, but if you find cute, clever-clever children and crime fiction a toxic combination, steer clear.

The Secret Speech

By Tom Rob Smith

imon & Schuster 453pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Tom Rob Smith’s first book, Child 44, hit the jackpot last year. It was a bestseller and was shortlisted for prizes as both a crime and a ‘straight’ novel. The Secret Speech is a sequel, set in 1956 after Stalin has died and been openly branded a tyrant and murderer by his successor Khrushchev. In Moscow there is political upheaval, in Budapest an uprising and in the gulags the slow return of hope. But former MGB-officer Leo Demidov is facing his own turmoil. He and his wife adopted two young girls, who hate him, and he is in serious danger from a female gang leader. She is determined to take vengeance on him because many years previously he had sent a particular priest to the Gulag. Violent actions follow relentlessly on every page. This is a tragic portrait of Russia’s brutality. The novel is good, and it's good for you too – educational and informative. But you need a strong stomach for it.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter