A detective from Boston is seconded to Iceland, where he lived as a child, to work with the local police. His first case is the murder of an academic who turns out to have had secret knowledge of a long-lost Norse saga about a ring with magical power and the warrior who cut it from his defeated foe’s finger. Readers may beat the detectives to the connection with J R R Tolkien, who, it transpires, visited Iceland and might have seen and been inspired by the lost saga. Could the murder have been committed by obsessive Lord of the Rings fans? Does the ring actually exist, and if so does it have supernatural power? Did it cause the death of the doctor who inherited the secret manuscript? The novel is enriched by numerous details about long-lost secrets, arcane and supernatural lore, and the extraordinary terrain of Iceland, about which we all know much more since April. This is a good story set in a fascinating place and spiced with some sharp observation. And the American cop is amazed to be told: ‘We cannot permit you to carry a weapon. That’s just not the way we do things here.’
Western women who live in Jeddah endure restrictions that are the stuff of nightmares – at least, so they seem to outsiders, and so they are for this book’s heroine, an American wife left vulnerable when her husband disappears. He turns out to have been living a double life, and is somehow connected to the murder of a brave woman filmmaker. The beautifully written descriptions of desert and city cannot disguise the fact that Ferraris is describing what many readers will think is hell on earth, though she is far too subtle a writer to depict Saudi Arabia in such simplistic terms. The oppressions of sharia law are shown as only one aspect of the lives of women who somehow manage to find friendship, contentment and professional success – even if it does depend on bizarre mechanisms such as a police officer revealing her unveiled face and hair to a suspect, who is so appalled that he tells all. The detective is an endearing character, here making his second appearance in a memorable and well-written novel.
A sister and brother, wild, young and iconoclastic, live in a crumbling mansion beside a dark wood somewhere between Hampstead and Highgate and enchant their poorer contemporaries, including the narrator Karen. A naive young woman with a knack for languages, she is dazzled by her new friend Biba. It’s hard to be sure whether readers are also expected to love this drama queen or be repelled by her long before the spell she casts on Karen loses its force. But the writing is good enough (apart from a few grammatical howlers) to make one suspend incredulity and accept that the narrator fell in love with Biba as well as, by extension, her brother and her lifestyle. This emotion is recollected ten years later, but not in tranquillity for, as is hinted throughout the book, the sweltering summer of Bohemian living and love ended in tears and tragedy. An enjoyable excursion into territory first colonised by Barbara Vine.
In 1989 Marcus Didius Falco made his first appearance as an informer – ie private detective – in ancient Rome. This interesting, original and quite varied series has taken us to the boundaries of the Roman world, with stories that are sometimes comic, and sometimes have sad undertones. Nemesis, written just after the death of the author’s long-time partner, opens with Falco’s double bereavement, as his father dies on the same day as his son is stillborn. This twentieth novel, as gripping and enjoyable as usual, is published at the same time as a fascinating volume that combines personal memoir with commentary on the books and their setting. It may prove to be the author’s way of bidding farewell to Falco and his family, for she has recently published a blockbuster set during the English Civil War. Sad, if so, to lose the toga-wearing gumshoe. But perhaps Lindsey Davis will return to the view she formed early on, that ‘what readers wanted and what I enjoyed writing, was picaresque Roman soap opera’.
An explanation for the current flood of historical crime novels must be that their authors are spared the need to explain the technical niceties of twenty-first-century forensics. Perhaps it is for a similar reason that several crime writers are turning to futurology. I was given Richard Thuss’s privately published What Time Is It? by its author, a stranger on a train, and was fascinated by the world he envisages, in which computers have become self-aware and as such have acquired human rights, including the right to destroy and not to be destroyed.
In Sunshine State, meanwhile, James Miller imagines the south-eastern corner of the former USA as The Storm Zone, a chaotic, breakaway region where hurricanes, cults, gangs and guerrillas threaten the stability of the Western world. A British secret agent is sent there to locate the legendary leader, formerly his colleague in Iraq. A beautifully written, haunting vision of what could happen – quite soon.
Another interesting visit to the Peak district (lovingly described) with excursions to Birmingham, whose no-go inner-city slums and regenerated centre are evoked with what seems like heartfelt disgust. The familiar team of Sergeant Diane Fry and Constable Cooper separate, Fry to return to her urban roots – though not as a detective but as a witness/victim. Meanwhile Ben Cooper niggles away at a case which everyone else takes as accidental death.
Somebody in Glasgow is killing for fun, and the victims aren’t the sexy young women of so many serial killer stories. This killer has discovered that ‘seeing a living thing in its death throes … I liked what I saw.’ The victims are old women, who seem to have suffered fatal accidents, and it takes a long time and too many deaths before the Glasgow police, preoccupied with inter-office jealousy, family problems or pregnancy, recognise the connection. An absorbing, vivid police-procedural.
Ex-special forces heroine snatches a dupe from a charismatic conman’s compound but finds herself and her equally omnicompetent partner embroiled in cultic complications, official obfuscations and personal problems. Fast, full-on action, and an intriguing plot.
The reprint of a 1981 novel that was filmed as Without A Trace. It is the story of a woman academic whose six-year-old son vanishes, and of the effect on her family, friends and neighbours as well as on the police detective dealing with the case. As much a psychological novel as a mystery, it’s both beautifully written and gripping.