Choose as setting a remote and dangerous corner of an island on which two lighthouses and a derelict manor house stand in sinister isolation. Mention the many previous residents to die unnaturally before the latest tragic death. Establish a single parent and two small children alone in a rambling house with creaking floorboards, ratchet up the wind to blizzard force, add a derelict barn full of evocative artefacts and ghostly sounds, and you have the ingredients for a creepy tale. The island is full of dangers – not least from the fierce weather – but any suggestion of malevolent ghosts is banished by a thoroughly modern biker gang and a perceptive old man who has lived in the neighbourhood all his life. A Gothic plot is balanced by a measured, downbeat writing style, and there is a sensibly down-to-earth conclusion. The reader is left with a strong feel for the place and a sense of sorrow, though the husband mourning his wife’s death is an unappealing character whose carelessness regarding his children is unforgivable. Johan Theorin has won numerous prizes so mine is a minority verdict: intelligent, atmospheric, but heavy going.
This is the television presenter’s second political novel. It has a thrillerish plot: an aggressive, anti-British vice president of the USA goes shooting in Scotland and is abducted from an isolated moor. But the narrative style is even, and a little detached, every climax flattened before excitement can peak. The story is told in the first person by the British ambassador to Washington, who devised the shooting party in the vain hope of generating some good PR and making the VP less anti-British. There’s lots of knowing, insider information plus behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Queen being motherly to the VP’s family; of the American president making a bid for independence from his puppet masters, and of Islamist terrorists making arrangements for mass murder. The cluster of improbable events is attributed to a neatly defined political chaos theory, but in fact the plot depends on an impossibly convenient coincidence: thick fog descends at the vital moment. If you share my taste for ‘insider insights’, Esler is well equipped to provide them.
This is the twelfth novel featuring Temperance Brennan as pathologist/detective. She has a very similar background to her author: both are forensic anthropologists who work in and commute between North Carolina and Quebec, so the stories have a high credibility rating. This one is better for the squeamish reader than others in the series, since the bones being analysed are mostly old and dry, and a quite routine murder inquiry is run in parallel with a much more interesting subplot concerning professional rivalry between Temperance and another younger, prettier medical examiner. Reichs’s punchy, straightforward prose style and her own undoubted expertise make hers by far the best in the subcategory of inside-the-path-lab thrillers.
It may be heresy to say so, but I was never very excited by Inspector Rebus. I am much more interested in Rankin’s new addition to the list of Edinburgh policemen-heroes. Malcolm Fox is one of ‘The Complaints’ – cops whose job is investigating other cops. Nobody likes them and their company is never welcomed by their colleagues. But it’s necessary work. Somebody has to do it, or so Fox is told when he is assigned the task of conducting surreptitious surveillance of a colleague rumoured to be on the take. Things go pear-shaped when Fox himself is suspected of misbehaviour, and he and his suspect find themselves together out in the cold. An interesting insight into human behaviour, not to mention a welcome tour of both the Edinburgh that visitors see and the parts they aren’t shown.
Crombie is one of several American women writers who set their mystery stories in the United Kingdom with a British detective, in this case Detective Inspector Gemma James. Gemma’s first appearance in this book is as a good wife cooking elaborate food for important guests, including a Scotland Yard chief superintendent – her partner’s boss. Just as well, perhaps, that this ill-matched party is interrupted by a call from an elderly German Jewish refugee whose long lost diamonds have turned up at a London auction house. There’s a good deal of flashing back to the war and wandering away from detection to Gemma’s personal problems, but this twelfth novel in the series has very competent writing and a careful, complicated plot. And (unlike other Anglophile American crime novelists) Crombie gets the local colour just right.
An investigative journalist in Glasgow is given, and publishes, a story about the Scottish minister of justice. Because he is settling an old score, he’s careless about fact-checking. His exposé of the minister as a former terrorist doesn’t stand up and he loses his job. But in the end murder will out and a murderer will be outed, even if his crime was years ago and in a different world. Northern Ireland, with all its sectarian enmities, is only 100 miles or so away from Scotland, and Glasgow and Belfast have in common a lot of history, which though old is not forgotten. A gritty, grey, realistic tale.
A second excursion for the comic couple, crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his agent Elsie Thirkettle, in a burlesque update on the classic country-house mystery, seasoned with sharp observations about the mystery genre. Sophisticated metafiction plus knockabout farce – an interesting combination.
A Native American woman returns to her unusual profession, helping people escape their enemies and acquire new lives and identities. She is a superwoman whose professional problems arise as much from the idiocy of her clients as the malevolence of their enemies. Implausible, full of coincidences and improbabilities, but a rattling good read.
Another book about living under deep cover with a new identity. A witness to crime is hidden away by the government agency that runs ‘The Scheme’. Very gripping and exciting, and even credible until the last couple of chapters, when suspended disbelief suddenly crashes to the ground.
The hero is a bookmaker, the setting Royal Ascot, the plot formulaic, which is all highly reassuring: a warm welcome to this year’s can’t-put-it-down Francis.