Cold to the Touch by Frances Fyfield; Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C J Box; Washington’s Shadow by Aly Monroe; Black Water Rising by Attica Locke; The Anniversary Man by R J Ellory; The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

November 2009 Crime Round-up

  • Frances Fyfield, 
  • C J Box, 
  • Aly Monroe, 
  • Attica Locke, 
  • R J Ellory, 
  • Ruth Rendell

Cold to the Touch

By Frances Fyfield

Sphere 256pp £19.99

There is an incongruity between the intelligent elegance of Frances Fyfield’s writing and the brutal repulsiveness of what she writes about. An earlier book, which elaborates on the horrors that can be inflicted on a patient in a dentist’s chair, is outdone by this new one in which an almost poetic account of the meat market at Smithfield is inevitably followed by human butchery; and you don’t need to be vegetarian to be revolted by the carefully researched detail and precise descriptions. Fyfield’s running heroine is Sarah Fortune, a high-class tart-cum-sex therapist, who has ‘an ice chip resting in that large heart of hers’. Sarah takes herself off to a new life in a cottage by the sea that belongs to the family of her nutty friend Jessica. Sarah gets to know Jessica’s relations and reputation but Jessica herself has vanished. Soon familiar preoccupations intervene as Sarah is drawn into a murder enquiry, driven by the self-imposed duty to ensure a kind of justice for friends old and new. A clever, disquieting tale. 

Three Weeks to Say Goodbye

By C J Box

Corvus 356pp £12.99

When Jack and Melissa bought a newborn baby, her mother was only too glad to sign the papers, take the money and run. Nine months later the proud adoptive parents are contacted by the child’s biological father, a teenage street-gangster. He is the son of an influential judge, who claims that the boy never signed away his rights and wants his daughter back. Jack is a mild, law-abiding man who seems impotent in the face of the forces ranged against him and his wife. How can he fight local authorities and officials, all the local worthies and the law itself? But the child’s blood relations, he discovers, have the worst of motives and will do her terrible harm. In this desperate situation Jack realises that he must do anything, however illegal, dangerous, violent and frightening, to keep his daughter away from these people. The hero’s predicament evokes instant sympathy and the writing is taut and evocative.

Washington’s Shadow

By Aly Monroe

John Murray 336pp £16.99

In Aly Monroe’s first book, her self-effacing secret-service hero was stationed in Spain during the final years of the Second World War. Now it is 1945 and Peter Cotton is moved on to Washington, ostensibly as part of the team of economists sent to beg President Truman for money. In fact Cotton’s boss is convinced that America intends to use Britain’s bankruptcy as a means to destroy the British Empire and obliterate any commercial competition. Cotton is to investigate the role of America’s intelligence agencies in this plot. He becomes both observer and victim of Britain’s diminishing power and influence, as he meets, secretly or at Embassy parties, a Soviet spy, an African academic and others involved in the machinations of competing officials. The story is told with such subtlety that following it requires concentration on tiny hints, but it’s worth the effort because the atmosphere of the time and place is so vividly evoked. 

Black Water Rising

By Attica Locke

Serpent’s Tail 448pp £12.99

Attica Locke’s first book is a winner. It is set in oil-obsessed Texas in 1981 (and it’s fascinating as an alternative view for anyone who remembers Dallas). Jay Porter is a thirty-year-old black attorney with a small practice whose biggest client is a call girl suing a client for damages after an automobile accident. On his pregnant wife’s birthday treat, a boat outing on the bayou, Jay rescues a white woman from drowning. In his activist college days Jay was part of the Black Power movement, acquiring a thick FBI file and a Federal conviction. He knows ‘firsthand the long, creative arm of Southern law enforcement’, so he has become wary of meddling in white folks' problems. He drops the woman outside the nearest police station but she disappears before going in. Jay’s life starts to unravel as two murders are discovered, city hall gets involved (the mayor, a white woman, was once Jay’s lover), crooked union leaders call a strike, crooked oilmen come into the picture, and family tensions are exacerbated. Locke is an experienced screenwriter so she creates very vivid scenes and incorporates numerous filmic hints and moments into her long, tense and original first novel.

The Anniversary Man

By R J Ellory

Orion 400pp £18.99

A man whose girlfriend was murdered survived the attack himself, though he is wounded physically and scarred mentally. Twenty years later John has become a recluse, but also an immensely knowledgeable and intuitive expert on the subject of serial killers. When a new spate of murders begins, only he recognises the pattern that underlies them. He cooperates with an obsessive police detective and an equally indefatigable female crime reporter to predict – and hopefully prevent – the next crime. Ellory manages not to glory in blood and guts while explicitly demonstrating the full horror of this series of random, pointless murders. He has evidently researched the history of serial murder in the USA over the last decades, and his book tells a story that could be based on truth. It is clever and well written, and as scary as a book on such a subject ought to be.

The Monster in the Box

By Ruth Rendell

Hutchinson 288pp £18.99

Nothing is said in this book or its blurb to imply that it’s a valedictory. However the subject – Wexford’s lifelong obsession with a man who has never been convicted of any crime – and the slightly elegiac tone, as the old policeman looks back over the decades of his career, give this chronicle of Kingsmarkham a winding-up (or winding-down) air. The narrative style is low key, with overlapping contemporary stories concerning a random murder and the disappearance of a girl who may – or may not – have been sent to Pakistan and forced into marriage. Wexford muses over the changes he has seen in the town – from an overgrown village to a multiracial conurbation with traffic problems. He thinks back to his days as a young policeman and his first meeting with his wife Dora. And he remembers encounters with a man called Targo, who, Wexford believes, is a psychopath who has committed several murders and stalked Wexford himself. More obscure and less gripping than usual – perhaps this is Wexford’s last bow? 

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