This is a genre-crossing thriller. It’s a wham–bang chase story, the hero of which, though shot, burnt, beaten and tied up, always manages to set himself free, leap back into the fray and dish out more punishment than he received. It is also an action thriller with too many corpses to count, a chase where the pursuing hero is himself pursued, a police procedural and a serial killer saga. There is a nutter massacring nubile women, corruption in high places, and Mr Big getting his comeuppance on the last page. The good guy is an undercover cop and the good gal an ambitious and insubordinate one. Simon Kernick has mixed and stirred these ingredients into an unlikely story, but it’s a fast-moving and gripping one.
S J Parris’s first novel is set in Oxford University during the reign of Elizabeth I, a resplendent but savage era. Some details seem disconcertingly familiar since college traditions survive for centuries. But the first burning at the stake is a speedy reminder that the pre-Enlightenment past is as foreign to us as England was to the novel’s hero, the Italian scholar Giordano Bruno. He is a former monk – technically a Roman Catholic but in fact a humanist – who dares to support the heresy that the earth goes round the sun and, even more scandalously, that our sun is one of many. Arriving in Oxford as a visiting scholar, Bruno is also working as a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, but when Lincoln College’s fellows become successive murder victims, Bruno finds himself unofficially investigating. The places and people are vividly described with a merciful absence of period language, and the solution to this exciting, well-written tale comes as a real surprise.
Though normally allergic to novels with child protagonists, I was hooked from the first page by this story of a twelve-year-old boy. Steven lives with his downtrodden single mother and his dotty nan who spends her days waiting for the return of her long-lost eleven-year-old son, believed to have been murdered by a serial killer who buried his victims’ bodies on Exmoor. Stephen is highly intelligent, but everyone who knows him sees only a lonely child, bullied at school and neglected at home. He spends his free time digging holes in the desperate hope that if he finds his uncle's remains it will solve his family problems. Then he gets the idea of actually asking the killer. His letter to the prisoner in Dartmoor starts a process that culminates in melodrama. The interaction between the manipulative murderer and the resourceful child is brilliantly portrayed and the story is told with elegant restraint, hinting at horrors but not describing them, which makes it far more chilling than more explicit fiction.
Norway is large but its population is tiny and on the whole law-abiding, so there is only one policeman in the country with any experience of serial killers: ‘the lone wolf of Oslo Police, Detective Inspector Harry Hole’. The murderer he is seeking kills female victims and then taunts the police by hanging their body parts on children’s snowmen. Like so many of today’s fictional heroes, Hole is an insubordinate loner, who despises PR and tells his boss, ‘My job is to catch villains, not to appear in a good light.’ There is not very much action or even drama, but one follows Hole’s investigations eagerly, because the quality of the writing (and its translation) is so impressive. Technically a police-procedural, this is a far better novel than that categorisation implies.
The Missing reads like a sophisticated novel by an experienced writer but is in fact a first book. The story is told by Sarah, a teacher of English at a girls’ school. She hates her job and is tormented by her demanding, pitiable mother, who has never recovered from the unexplained disappearance of Sarah’s teenage brother many years before. When one of Sarah’s pupils disappears, and is then found murdered, the investigation inevitably involves Sarah herself, reviving old memories and supplying new clues. It’s an exciting story, very well written, and, at least up until the last few pages, credible.
This ambitious philosophical novel was a bestseller in Germany, where critics have called it a masterpiece. Its subject is the relationship between guilt and innocence, personified by Sebastian and Oskar, intimate friends since university days when both men were tipped to be future candidates for the Nobel Prize for physics. Twenty years on, their relationship is one of love and hate. They are not so much colleagues as competitors, meeting regularly but disagreeing vehemently. One day Sebastian decides to break free from Oskar, but when Sebastian’s son disappears and the ransom message instructs him to kill a man in order to get his son back, Oskar must come to the rescue. Enter the detectives, the dying Schilf and his disciple Rita, a bizarre pair whose unorthodox practices eventually bring them to the bizarre truth. An interesting and original novel, but quite heavy going.