With government plans for universal databases in the dock, this month’s reading could be adduced as evidence against them. Anyone who cares about civil liberties should take warning from this kind of well–researched and knowledgeable fiction. It shows that clever hackers make any promises of confidentiality meaningless. We all need to know what technology can do, and what those undermining it can achieve, and a well-told thriller makes the medicinal information go down easily, even though the technological adventures that form part of this book might seem obscure and nerdy. But there is a very engaging human story. The editor of a Los Angeles daily paper makes an experienced journalist redundant so that somebody younger and cheaper can have his job. The older journalist’s determination to go out on a high, with a prize-winning piece, makes an exciting plot. But it’s the subtext that is memorable: what human ingenuity can make, human ingenuity can break. And that includes computer safeguards.
Another book non-nerds should avoid – but for anyone interested in computer technology this is an absorbing thriller in which brains eventually beat brawn. The heroine, ‘Harry’ Martinez, could be seen as a female, online James Bond. Once a teenage hacker, she is now a highly skilled security expert from whom no hidden file remains secret for long. She can circumvent any firewall or code. Real life is more intractable. Harry lives near her family in Dublin, under the shadow of the crimes committed by her imprisoned father. He taught her everything he knows about taking risks, both at the poker table and in life, but one of his gambles was a bad bet and Harry is still paying the price. Some nice turns of phrase and a fast-moving story make this Irish writer’s first novel a very good start.
This is not the first time that a thriller writer has used the siege of Malta during the Second World War as the background to a murder mystery, but Mark Mills’s book is an outstandingly good example. This subtle, original novel balances its ingredients so skilfully that it could as accurately be called a romance or a wartime adventure. By the midsummer of 1942 the people of Malta have endured unimaginable privations and suffering, as have the British service personnel. Daily air raids, hunger, thirst and bereavement distract attention from the fact that local women are being tortured and murdered. Is it possible that the criminal is a British officer? Major Max Hitchcock, a British information officer, finds himself becoming an amateur detective in the intervals of his own experiences of love and war. This story of his months on Malta is beautifully written, cleverly plotted and highly recommended.
This was the only book with me on a train so I read it despite having decided not to read any more novels that dwell on (and in some cases, apparently glory in) the mutilation and murder of young women. What the success of this sub-genre says about our society is a subject for a different article. But since it is so popular this addition to the list will presumably be welcomed by many readers. It is a first novel, with an original setting in a cleverly imagined small town where Amish and non–Amish residents live harmoniously side by side. The woman police chief is equally at home in both communities, as she grew up in one and now lives in the other. But she is weighed down by her own secret knowledge and a guilty conscience. A good, well-written story, but it leaves a nasty taste.
Another of James’s sophisticated, complicated and well-informed snapshots of the Brighton police at work. The theme is organ transplantation and the tragic shortage of donors in the UK. As always, where there are willing customers there are eager suppliers. Teenagers from Romania are being brought into the United Kingdom and murdered for their liver, kidneys, or other parts. The plots and subplots, and the careful fleshing out of each character, make this a leisurely exploration of the moral quandaries involved, but Peter James manages to keep up the tension at the same time. His research is obviously careful. It’s well worth the effort, as the result is a superior thriller that is also a powerful piece of propaganda.
The Russian-American detective Artie Cohen finds his girlfriend murdered in New York. She is the daughter of his rich gangster friend Tolya, who has shifted his centre of operations to London. ‘The British government makes this a tax haven for people like me’, Tolya explains. For London has become the place where Russians can hide, spend and ‘invest all the money they make from buying up whole pieces of the Earth’. Artie sets off to join Tolya, then moves on to Moscow and finds it, too, transformed. Russia is no longer the miserable country in which he grew up but a cornucopia of consumer goods and wealth. But one thing the three cities have in common is the precarious nature of the boom and the criminality that underpins it. This is a novel of many layers, a murder story underlying a love story that underlies a portrait of a dangerous society rolling in filthy money and haunted by its equally filthy past.
A cartoonist who doesn’t draw her own cartoons, a singer who didn’t write his own songs, little boys whose simultaneous disappearance seem unconnected, middle-aged men fancying lonely women – add to these parallel plotlines a mass poisoner and a house fire that turns into a full–scale murder hunt and you begin to realise that this book contains too many ingredients and far too many coincidences. So I wasn’t convinced, though I was gripped by the detailed description of police work in Glasgow, a large cast of credible and mostly sympathetic characters and the vividly realised setting. And Caro Ramsay’s writing is excellent. A flawed but gripping second novel.