Jessica Mann

May 2009 Crime Round-Up

  • Iain Pears, 
  • Esther Verhoef (Translated by Paul Vincent), 
  • Dan Fesperman, 
  • Imogen Robertson, 
  • Adam LeBor, 
  • Jeremy Duns

Stone’s Fall

By Iain Pears

Jonathan Cape 608pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Stone’s Fall is a very long, three-part novel, with each section consisting of a personal memoir. In the first, set in 1909, a journalist receives a commission from a rich and beautiful widow. She wants him to research and write the biography of her late husband John Stone, an armaments manufacturer. In the next section, set in Paris in 1890 and told by a young English spy, Stone is seen at the height of his powers as an international financier; and in the third he is himself the narrator, describing his time as a young man in Venice in 1867. The plot is carefully worked out with a genuinely surprising solution at the very end, which I reached with regret. Despite the lack of differentiation between the three narrators’ tones of voice, and although the book is studded with chunks of a lecture on economics posing as lively dialogue, it is absorbing and also timely. The demonstration of the fragility of European financial systems a century ago is pertinent. Can they really be so vulnerable to manipulation? Evidently, they could and they can. 

Close-up

By Esther Verhoef (Translated by Paul Vincent)

Quercus 352pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Translated from the Dutch, this novel is told in the first person by Margot, separated from her husband and on the lookout for a new one. On holiday in London she meets a rich and handsome photographer, Leon, who transforms her life by finding her a new career, a new set of friends and a new self-confidence. But Leon, as the reader knows from the very beginning, has a penchant for murdering his girlfriends. The previous one was found drowned in his bath, though the verdict was suicide. Leon is an artist and lives without frameworks or limits. ‘If you have to wonder if you're working in a morally responsible way, you might just as well start making passport photos.’ Margot is told that there are people in this world who do disgusting things in the name of art and finds it out for herself when it looks as though her own dead body will become part of an installation. I can't pretend the plot is convincing but I did enjoy the excellent writing and was interested by insights about contemporary life in Holland and England. 

The Arms Maker of Berlin

By Dan Fesperman

Hodder & Staughton 384pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Professor Nat Turnbull, an expert in the history of the Third Reich, is dragged from his peaceful academic life. His former mentor has been arrested for stealing top-secret papers, and then dies before explaining what he's been up to. Unwillingly, Nat finds himself cooperating with the FBI in trying to find and interpret the missing documents, which apparently implicate one of Germany's richest industrialists in a war crime. The treasure-hunt plot and the intercontinental chase it involves are too tricksy to be plausible, but they keep you concentrating for the duration, and the historical details of life in Berlin and Switzerland during the Second World War are vivid and interesting.

Instruments of Darkness

By Imogen Robertson

Headline Review 352pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

With the opening of this historical thriller, the author won a national competition for the first thousand words of a novel. It continues equally well. The story is set in eighteenth-century England and concerns those staples of romantic mysteries, a wicked lord, a missing heir, a mysterious gentleman and an impulsive ingénue. But the quality of the writing and the originality of the characters lift it out of that cliché-filled rut. The action is centred on the palatial Thornleigh Hall, where a crippled Earl lives with his whore and his second son. When a dead man is found in a local wood his neighbours involve themselves in his affairs. They make unlikely heroes. One is a reclusive scientist, the other, whose husband is away fighting in the American War of Independence, is the mistress of a neighbouring estate. Meanwhile, in London, a musician is killed, leaving his children orphans. The connection between the separate events is quickly obvious but the story takes a lot of energetic working out. It shifts perhaps a little too much between different people and places and occasionally descends into melodrama. But the wit and energy make it an enjoyable read.

The Budapest Protocol

By Adam LeBor

Reportage Press 235pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

This is a political thriller by a political journalist. Set in Hungary, it describes the country’s present state and its history during the Second World War. The story follows a complicated series of violent and sinister events through the eyes of an English journalist working in Budapest. He is instrumental in uncovering a conspiracy formed in the last years of the war and due to culminate decades later when a united Europe will find eventually itself under the economic domination of the heirs of Nazism. LeBor’s expertise shines through the story and he appends several instructive appendices on staying anonymous on the Internet, coercive sterilisation of Roma women, and the plans made by German industrialists in the 1940s to maintain their power for decades. I think the book is intended to be an exciting adventure story (which it is) rather than political propaganda. But its effect will be to make readers shudder at the idea of being yoked in a shared market, currency, or legal system with the corrupt, violent society he describes.

Free Agent

By Jeremy Duns

Simon & Schuster 352pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

If you want to invent a cross between James Bond and Jason Bourne, a good name for your dangerous international spy is Paul Dark. The possibilities for wordplay are endless, particularly when, in this first volume of a planned trilogy, it becomes apparent quite early that our hero went over to the dark side long ago. Or did he? In 1945 Dark was an MI6 agent who took part in a secret operation hunting and killing Nazi war criminals. Twenty years later, when the main part of the story takes place, a KGB defector is set to expose Dark as a double agent. Will he fight? Will he fly? Or will he do both? Layer after layer of deception is peeled away, in a story that moves from Europe to Africa, from the Second World War to the Biafran War. Genuine sources have been carefully researched so the history is credible, even instructive. The action is fast and violent and so is the hero. His brain works a little more slowly and when he tells himself he’s been a fool, he is, for once, not lying.


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