Jessica Mann

February 2010 Crime Round-up

  • Sophie Hannah, 
  • Peter Temple, 
  • Ann Cleeves, 
  • Mark Sanderson, 
  • Vince Flynn, 
  • Robert Goddard, 
  • Michael Gilbert

A Room Swept White

By Sophie Hannah

Hodder & Stoughton 448pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

The heroine of this novel is working on a documentary about miscarriages of justice involving cot death babies and mothers wrongly accused of murder. She gets more involved with her subjects than is desirable and ends up conducting a trial by television, a method of achieving justice that in these cases actually might be more effective than wielding the might of the law. This book is an uncomfortable read because the subject of mothers wrongly convicted of killing their babies and being consequently imprisoned is so painful. The idea of a baby’s death; the idea of a mother being accused of bringing about a tragedy that she can hardly survive; the idea of social workers damned if they do remove a baby and damned if they don’t; and the sweeping statements with which a self-styled expert can ruin someone else’s life – all these scenarios, sadly familiar from contemporary news stories, really hurt to think about. 

Truth

By Peter Temple

Quercus 384pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Peter Temple is one of the leading Australian crime novelists, and in this book he paints a vivid, fascinating portrait of a society and its capital city, and of a flawed but fascinating hero. Melbourne’s Head of Homicide, Stephen Villani, loves his children but has no time for them, loved his wife but became detached from her, and loved his father but could never satisfy him. In fact, Villani’s true love is his job. When a prostitute’s body is found in a millionaire’s apartment, rich and powerful men try to stop his investigations, but he is spurred on to persevere, no matter what the effect on his private life and career prospects. In terse dialogue and short sentences the truth is gradually revealed. At the same time, the reader learns more about Villani’s family, friends and colleagues, while Villani begins to understand his own troubled childhood.

Temple is interested in political and financial corruption, and in questions of morality, of behaviour and of simple human decency. He has said that ‘those are the issues you should write about, if you are a crime writer or not. In fact if you are a crime writer you have more licence to write about them than anybody else.’ He does it extremely well. 

Blue Lightning

By Ann Cleeves

Macmillan 340pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

In this final volume of her Shetland quartet, Ann Cleeves makes use of birdwatching, an interesting area of expertise the intricacies of which also have appeared in some of her earlier work. The relevant aspect here is the effect this hobby has on its enthusiasts – vain, jealous and ultra-competitive as they all seem to be. When the worst of them is found dead in a hide, it is pure chance that Inspector Perez happens be on the island, having brought his partner Fran to visit his parents. A sound, traditional detective novel, with a delightful setting and a shock ending.

Snow Hill

By Mark Sanderson

HarperCollins 352pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

It is 1936. A Fleet Street reporter gets a tip-off about the death of a policeman from the local nick at Snow Hill. But when Johnny Steadman gets there nobody can tell him anything, least of all whether any officer is dead and, if so, who, how or where. Getting the stone-wall treatment is obviously enough to turn any ambitious young journalist into an indefatigable detective, and his investigation leads him into a dangerous underworld connected with the meat market at Smithfield. The period atmosphere is vividly and convincingly portrayed, including the secretive (because illegal) world of gay men between the wars. Johnny feels his way through a metaphorical and actual freezing fog to a logical if surprising solution. It’s a very good read and an interesting story based on an event that is rumoured actually to have happened.

Pursuit of Honour

By Vince Flynn

Simon & Schuster 448pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

I was fascinated by this book, which deals with the issue of terrorism and the methods needed to keep America safe. Its sympathies are the very reverse of those I take for granted. It poses the question of how far the CIA should go in order to extract actionable intelligence that will thwart terrorist plots. The author and his hero (and his enormous audience – Flynn’s books are big in middle America) would answer, ‘as far as it takes’. The hero of this novel, courageous though he may be, is odious because he is as far outside the law himself as the terrorists he is hunting down. The tone of the book is also odious, because of its bigoted politics and might-is-right assumptions. But the story is punchy and unputdownable.

Long Time Coming

By Robert Goddard

Bantam 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This is a complicated, subtle, revenge and redemption story, concerning a man’s return after thirty-six years in an Irish prison. His nephew Stephen, who had no idea that Eldritch was alive, still less that he was a convicted criminal, finds himself forced to get involved in his uncle’s affairs. The story began in Antwerp in 1940, when Eldritch was personal assistant to a Jewish diamond dealer who had a collection of Picassos that disappeared during the war. Jump a generation: enter Rachel Banner, an American who should have inherited the pictures and wants them back. Untangling the web of murky secrets, family ties and old betrayals proves dangerous for Eldritch and Stephen, while Rachel finds that justice is an illusion. The message is that although actions have consequences, it might take decades to know what they are. ‘That is merely one of time’s many invisible tricks, which it plays even as it passes.’

The Murder of Diana Devon and Other Mysteries

By Michael Gilbert

Robert Hale 224pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

This is the final collection of Michael Gilbert’s work, barring unexpected discoveries, for all his obscurely or never published stories have now appeared. Gilbert was a solicitor who produced much of his work sitting on commuter trains between Kent and London, which you would not expect to be the ideal environment for creative writing. In fact he wrote brilliant crime stories whose clear, short sentences and fine dialogue match his ingenious plotting and sensible take on human behaviour and contemporary life. Not Gilbert’s best, but still a good deal better than most.


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