Jessica Mann

April 2010 Crime Round-up

  • Joseph Kanon, 
  • Margie Orford, 
  • Raphael Cardetti, 
  • Cathi Unsworth, 
  • Kenneth Cameron, 
  • Harlan Coben, 
  • Jesse Kellerman, 
  • Gianrico Carofiglio

Stardust

By Joseph Kanon

Simon & Schuster 512pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Stardust is narrated as though it were a film script, page after page of dialogue that would be easier to read if the speakers’ names preceded every line. This series of quick scenes and sharply drawn bit parts is set in Hollywood at the beginning of the McCarthy era. The two sons of a German Jew have gone in different directions. Ben, who makes propaganda films for the army, has returned from ruined Germany and is haunted by the memory of what he saw there. Dan stayed in America and became a Hollywood film producer. When he dies after a fall from a third-floor balcony, Ben does not believe the verdict of suicide and begins to investigate, discovering that Dan’s German émigré wife is not who she seems and that Dan himself was reporting suspected communists to the local congressman. At the same time Ben begins to acquire an insider’s view of the film industry, meeting supporting characters – Paulette Goddard and Greer Garson – who add verisimilitude to the novel’s cast of characters. Witch-hunts and movie-making: this familiar but always fascinating combination make a good story.

Blood Rose

By Margie Orford

Atlantic Books 368pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

Lying between the diamond-mining region known as the Forbidden Territory and the arid Skeleton Coast is the isolated Namibian town of Walvis Bay. This is where abandoned children end up, homeless and hopeless. When a number of teenage boys are found violently murdered, Clare Hart arrives from South Africa to profile the serial killer. She is to work with the chief of the local murder unit, who is lively, ultra-sensible and nine-months pregnant. The story is enriched by the developing relationship between these two skilled and sensible women, and by its setting in an unforgiving environment. The action moves from the ugly town to the littered grey sand of the shore, out to the merciless sea and back into the desert – a godforsaken place, which for criminals is literally the last resort. This novel is well researched, carefully plotted and filled with good characters – in fact it is an excellent thriller – but what I will remember is the place it is set in.

Death in the Latin Quarter

By Raphael Cardetti

Abacus 320pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

This story moves between France’s most intellectual environments: the Sorbonne, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Louvre, and when it remains in those settings is fascinating and original. A professor jumps to his death, a librarian is found murdered, and a reclusive millionaire art collector turns up out of the blue to recruit a brilliant young restorer of mediaeval manuscripts. She is in disgrace and out of work having accidentally ruined a priceless document. Commissioned to restore a long-lost, much sought-after folio, she finds herself attacked by mysterious enemies and conned by her own enigmatic friends. The narrative becomes less interesting and less convincing as gangsters from a variety of countries get involved and more deaths ensue. I wish the author had stuck to writing about the world he evidently knows well, of scholars and collectors and the passions that drive them. Once he starts introducing international criminals the book becomes more of a conventional thriller and less of an original and fascinating treasure-hunt tale. But it’s good in (large) parts.

Bad Penny Blues

By Cathi Unsworth

Serpent’s Tale 304pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

This bright, beautifully written fictionalisation of an actual series of crimes is the fruit of careful research. Many of her readers will remember the years from 1959 to 1965, though probably a little differently from Unsworth’s portrayal, which is based on London as the news media described it. So here are Teddy Boys, gangsters, fascists, artists and slumming aristocrats. The setting is in what is now smart and expensive Notting Hill. Back then it was slummy, rough Ladbroke Grove, where unscrupulous landlords petrol-bombed sitting tenants, and where struggling artists and designers lived before they became the famous figures of the Swinging Sixties. Unsworth’s novel is based on an unsolved case – the serial murders of eight prostitutes. She uses historical material and images of popular culture to create an exciting story and convincinlgy evokes time and place.

The Second Woman

By Kenneth Cameron

Orion 320pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

A London-based novel concerning terrorist bombers, the limits of freedom and the extra-legal actions of the intelligence services sounds highly contemporary. But we are in the early 1900s. Plus ça change. Londoners were terrorised by bombers (anarchists) and resented overseas immigrants (Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms). A rich gentleman and his cheeky manservant form a traditional pair of amateur sleuths who get tangled up in a murder mystery that turns out to have links with officialdom. But the book is more serious than the period pieces on which it is to some extent based. In these earliest years of MI5, its operatives were already behaving as if they were above the law. Two important themes underlie this ingenious story: the powers of the secret state and the nature of anti-Semitism. Interesting and well-written, this is highly recommended.

Caught

By Harlan Coben

Orion 352pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

A self-righteous female TV reporter in suburban America first entraps and then – having ruined his life – begins to investigate a man who might be a paedophile. Elsewhere a seventeen-year-old girl disappears. This portrait of a small community shows its more hysterical side. Reputations and lives are ruined by unfounded gossip disseminated via the Internet and impossible to supress or disprove. This is an absorbing page-turner, the theme of which is human endurance and forgiveness, but the narrative style – pages of dialogue – and the hairpin bends of the complicated story take so much concentration that any message the author may have wanted to convey is rather squeezed out.

The Executor

By Jesse Kellerman

Sphere 352pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Philosophy graduate Joseph is a perpetual student, his unfinished dissertation years overdue. When finally ejected from Harvard he moves in with an elderly woman who in lieu of rent wants intelligent conversation – which would be fine were it not for her manipulative nephew. The slow-moving but interesting account of their intellectual sparring suddenly changes into a murder story – macabre, messy and not at all credible.

Involuntary Witness

By Gianrico Carofiglio

Bitter Lemon Press 272pp order from our bookshop

An outstandingly good crime novel in every way: the theme is racism, the hero is scrupulous, melancholy and humane and the atmosphere – in a part of southern Italy torn between holidaymakers, local small-townees and illegal immigrants – is almost palpable. The story culminates with one of the best courtroom scenes in crime fiction.

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