Frances Fyfield can write stories in which terror is sharpened by disgust – the dentist’s surgery as torture chamber, in an earlier book, is regrettably unforgettable. Happily, this tale is utterly different, and if it did not sound absurd to attach the adjective to a crime novel I would describe it as charming, with its Dickensian characters and interesting speculations on the necessity of art. We first meet the heroine – or almost-heroine – Di in her earliest, criminal phase, when she is a teenage waif. She encounters, and years later marries, a remarkable older man called Thomas, a teacher, inventor and art collector who has lost contact with his children because his former wife claimed he had molested them. Di adores Thomas and his collection of objects and paintings, in contrast to his needy, jealous daughters, who see them simply as valuables they can’t wait to sell. The book’s themes are serious: the value of literacy, the destructive force of greed and envy, and the redemptive power of art. I agree with its message and admire the tale and people through whom it is communicated. This excellent mystery, complete with crimes, clues, and red-herrings, is also a novel of character – and a very good one too.
The author retired Rebus, his world-weary, insubordinate cynic of a detective five years ago, to write instead about Malcolm Fox, a cop from Internal Affairs. But the old man wouldn’t lie down in Rankin’s imagination, so the new book brings the two characters together. The prissy Fox, who thinks Rebus represents everything he most disapproves of, is out to get rid of him from the force. But Rebus is working as a ‘civilian’ cold-case officer, and somehow contrives to worm his way into the heart of an investigation seeking a series of missing girls. This drunken derelict of a knight errant is at home in the mean streets and with the meanest of criminals, and ill at ease in more salubrious surroundings. But of course he’s the one who cracks the case, partly, it seems, by setting off in his ancient car for several long drives – meticulously described, traffic jam by traffic jam – between Edinburgh and the Highlands. Ian Rankin’s fiction is as reliable as it is successful, so this instalment will thrill his many fans.
The book opens with the words ‘there is no more haunting story than that of an unsolved crime’. The late Julian Wells had been haunted by many unsolved crimes, or at least ones whose perpetrators were never brought to justice. He was a writer who concentrated on investigating and then describing the most infamous and appalling depths of human depravity: Countess Bathory and her blood-drenched torture chambers; gulags, concentration camps and Oradour-sur-Glane, where German soldiers burnt the village’s inhabitants alive in a locked church. The mystery of the book concerns a young woman called Marisol, who acted as Julian’s guide on a post-university visit to Argentina. Was she quiet and reticent because that was the only way to survive in Argentina under the Junta? Or was there a more sinister motive behind her behaviour? This novel is beautifully written, interesting, instructive and ingenious, but the horrors it describes, all of them historically accurate, engender despair. An admirable but not enjoyable book.
Who am I to doubt the realism of a novel about a New York assistant district attorney, when the author herself served as one for three decades? I am equally unqualified to question the plausibility of a scene showing the interrogation in a sex-crimes prosecution, given that the author was chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit. Maybe Linda Fairstein did believe every single word an alleged rape victim said, even when she was a proven liar about everything else? Maybe Fairstein did go galloping off with her police detective friends to conduct dangerous investigations in person? After all, much else in this book is firmly based in fact: the description of the village of Mougins, its famous restaurant Le Relais, and New York’s equally well-known Lutece; the inside information on expensive dining and fine wine, and the means by which the restaurateur decides who sits where. The reader will learn a lot, including some things one might prefer not to know. In this mystery novel, the unconvincing part is the mystery itself.
Rickman’s crime novels about a contemporary exorcist are set on the Welsh borders, as is this second volume in his new series featuring the Elizabethan occultist John Dee and various other historical figures, including the queen’s beloved Earl of Leicester, who was perhaps – nobody will ever be sure – also her lover. A fine mixture of historical fact, popular gossip and wild speculation has always surrounded their relationship. Dr Dee, the queen’s astrologer, knows no more than anyone else. But if he manages to acquire the right scrying stone he will be able to discern the truth about the death of the Countess of Leicester (did she fall or was she pushed?), about the queen’s destiny, and about everything else that a learned necromancer might be asked. Dee and a disguised Leicester travel together to Wales, attend the assizes and eventually solve new mysteries. An interesting and enjoyable episode.
This book is by one of the most original and authoritative writers of spy fiction of our time. Littell’s account of the CIA in The Company is a classic, merging insider knowledge (or what looks like it) with thrills and spills. So when he speculates about Kim Philby – who was he really, what was he really trying to do? – the result is a fascinating new take on a familiar story. Anyone too young to remember the years of anguished speculation about the Cambridge spies might be baffled but never bored, because Robert Littell knows how to hook his readers, and does not really let them off it even by the end of the book. The questions and speculation it provokes are still there, niggling.
If you like legal thrillers, and I do, a new novel by John Grisham should be a real treat. The Racketeer opens with the murder of a federal judge, an unusual crime that has occurred only four times in American history. The narrator begins with this statement: ‘I did not know Judge Fawcett, but I know who killed him and why. I am a lawyer and I am in prison. It’s a long story.’ It is indeed a long story, told by a black lawyer serving ten years for an offence that in this country would not attract a custodial sentence. (Grisham always shows us America at its worst, displaying the brutality and oppressiveness of its criminal justice system.) The imprisoned lawyer has a long-term plan, which involves conning the FBI, a federal prosecutor and numerous official bodies, rewriting history and creating facts. It’s immensely complicated, another Grisham characteristic, but in most of his previous work the lively characters as well as his ingenious plots carry the reader along. Here he has made his hero-narrator black and clever, but otherwise he has so few characteristics as to be positively robotic. I never thought I’d say that I was bored by a Grisham thriller, but there is a first time even for this.