Jessica Mann

March 2009 Crime Round-up

  • Jo Nesbo (Translated by Don Bartlett), 
  • Robert Wilson, 
  • Barbara Nadel, 
  • John Wray, 
  • Malla Nunn, 
  • Robert Rotenberg, 
  • Tanguy Viel

The Redeemer

By Jo Nesbo (Translated by Don Bartlett)

Harvill Secker 464pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

There’s a thesis to be written about the stroppiness of fiction’s most popular policemen. Driven by intuition, a social conscience and their flight from alcohol addiction, they tend to be insubordinate loners – think Rebus or Frost. The Norwegian Harry Hole is typical. He assumes that orders are there to be disobeyed, and goes his own way regardless of procedure and in defiance of his boss. He’s an impatient man who’d rather scale a fence than wait for the gate to open, and a very human one, who makes personal relationships with suspects and witnesses. Nesbo’s message seems to be subversive: ‘It’s only chances and nuances that separate the hero from the villain’, and ‘righteousness is the virtue of the lazy and the visionless’. This story, set in icy Oslo, concerns murder in the Salvation Army. It is both interesting and exciting and, although he is to some extent a creature of cliché, Hole and his author provide unusually good reading.

The Ignorance of Blood

By Robert Wilson

Harper Collins 432pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Regrettably, the preface announces that this is the last book in Wilson's fascinating and exciting series. Like the previous episodes in ‘The Seville Quartet’, this one is full of remarkable coincidences and multiple violent deaths, devices which in less skilled hands would have seemed unacceptable or incredible. But Wilson writes so well that he makes the corpse-strewn stage entirely plausible, and a series of positively Shakespearean complications (lost children, changed identities and false relationships) perfectly acceptable. Inspector Javier is brave, humane and intuitive. He also manages to go for days without sleep, an indispensable qualification when dealing with native Spanish gangsters, the Russian mob, Moroccan fundamentalists and numerous white-collar criminals and junkies. It's all far more credible than Robert Wilson’s initial disclaimer, for readers will find it hard to believe, as he writes, that Seville is really a comparatively tranquil city. My own image of it will always be coloured by his violent imagination.

River of the Dead

By Barbara Nadel

Headline 320pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

This is the twelfth in Nadel’s series featuring Inspector Ikmen of Istanbul. It is full of drama, both in the detective’s private life, when a long lost ne’er-do-well son reappears, and in the story itself, which takes the investigators to a remote corner of south-east Turkey where the big city policeman feels quite as foreign as the reader does. The distinction between a Westernised Istanbul and the primitive society in which this story takes place seems to be genuine and, though the book is no travelogue, it’s very informative. The gang leaders are hiding out in a dangerous city that is definitely preferable to read about than to visit. The fascinating descriptions of the area’s superstitions and religions, which both overlap and compete, lend spice to an interesting, excellent novel.

Lowboy

By John Wray

Canongate 256pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

The author was included in Granta’s list of best young American novelists, and although I didn't actually enjoy his book, I can see why. The novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Will Heller, a paranoid schizophrenic who has stopped taking his antipsychotic medication, escaped from a mental hospital and is wandering through New York’s subway tunnels. He is convinced that only he can save the world from ending that day. To do so he needs to find a girl called Emily Wallace. At the same time his mother is trying to find him and so is a police officer. As these characters weave around each other in a complicated kind of dance, what emerges is a brilliantly imagined underworld beneath Manhattan and an unusually vivid portrait of a young man about to be overwhelmed by his psychotic imagination. It's very well done and has been rapturously received by critics on both sides of the Atlantic.

A Beautiful Place to Die

By Malla Nunn

Picador 320pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

This remarkable first novel is set in South Africa in 1952. Detective Emmanuel Cooper (half British, half Boer) is sent to a small town on the Mozambique border to investigate a murder. The dead man was the local Mr Big, an Afrikaaner police chief who, with his five sons, dominated local society. Racial segregation, recently intensified, affects every aspect of life. The government ‘every year introduces a dozen new ways to break the law’. As a cop, Cooper is one of the few still permitted to speak to black, Indian, coloured or Jew. He follows the trail through complicated, illicit networks of human relationships. At the same time, working in parallel, the bully boys of the Security Branch ignore evidence and pick their preferred perpetrator to pin the crime on. It’s fascinating to follow this flawed good man at a very bad time in a beautiful place. More, please.

Old City Hall

By Robert Rotenberg

John Murray 373pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

The three words ‘I killed her’ are the last words that a famous chat show host ever utters. His wife's dead body is in the bath and there seems no doubt that he put it there. Much of the book follows the gathering of evidence and the reaction to it of police detectives, a prosecutor, and a defence lawyer who would like to be famous. Each character is lifelike and credible; the scenes are exciting as the murder investigation zigzags slowly forward; and the Canadian setting is very well described. In crime fiction’s minute sub-categories, this is a legal thriller. But there is much more to the story than law and clues – a skilful, tasty concoction.

Beyond Suspicion

By Tanguy Viel

The New Press 176pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

This is the first crime fiction I have seen from the groundbreaking New Press, an intense, elegant and complex novella translated from the French. There is nothing particularly original in the plot, which concerns a marriage and murder, a prostitute, her lover and a rich man. But the slightly surreal nature of the story and a complicated, time-shifting way of telling it makes this a remarkable and recommended little volume. 

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