Jessica Mann

August 2010 Crime Round-up

  • Kate Atkinson, 
  • Christopher Fowler, 
  • Inger Ash Wolfe, 
  • Mark Billingham, 
  • Tim Waterstone, 
  • Lucretia Grindle, 
  • N J Cooper, 
  • Ruth Rendell

Started Early, Took My Dog

By Kate Atkinson

Doubleday 352pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

My friends queue up to borrow advance copies of Kate Atkinson’s books. Since her much praised first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Atkinson has become immensely popular; the jacket copy describes her as ‘one of the great writers of our time’. This book is the third in a series featuring ex-cop turned private eye Jackson Brodie. The other principal characters are an elderly actress on the verge of senile dementia, recently retired police superintendent Tracy Waterhouse, and the young child she has, in a moment of madness, bought from a prostitute. The book is full of allusions, illusions and conclusions about life, the universe and everything. Its story moves in circles and zigzags. Atkinson is wry and moralistic, as when Jackson, at Fountains Abbey, thinks he is looking at cloisters until he puts his glasses on and sees it is the latrine, or when Tracy concludes that love ‘didn’t come free, you paid in pain. Your own.’ Trying to follow the zany plot requires concentration but the original and amusing writing makes it worth the effort.

Off the Rails

By Christopher Fowler

Doubleday 352pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is the eighth in a series of entertaining contemporary versions of golden-age detective fiction. Arthur Bryant and John May are eccentric, old-fashioned cops in London’s Peculiar Crimes unit who use unorthodox methods of detection. This time they are working literally rather than metaphorically underground after a series of apparently unconnected murders takes place in London’s Tube system. As the ageing detectives stake out the tunnels and escalators under King’s Cross, all the obvious and some less predictable murder methods come into play. A tightly plotted and cleverly written tale which is full of interesting information about the separate world beneath city streets.

The Taken

By Inger Ash Wolfe

Transworld 496pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Second in the series featuring 62-year-old Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, head of police in a small town in Ontario called Port Dundas. The book opens on a grumpy Hazel recovering from surgery in her ex-husband's basement, hooked on painkillers and being looked after by his new wife. When local fishermen find a woman’s body in the lake, Hazel goes back to work too soon. The plot is intricate, full of cryptic crossword–style clues, but the principal pleasure of this book is in the characters, particularly Micallef herself, a detective whose ‘hunger to know the rest of the story was greater than her sense of self-preservation’. The pseudonym, as yet unidentified, is that of an established Canadian novelist, who writes so well that one does not object to several clichés of contemporary crime fiction: the insubordinate detective, the unreasonable superior, and a series of baroque and improbable crimes.

From the Dead

By Mark Billingham

Little, Brown 361pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

In another life Mark Billingham is a stand-up comedian and a brilliantly entertaining speaker, but his crime fiction seems to be a humour-free zone. This makes his police inspector hero, Tom Thorne, all the more realistic and convincing. One believes that this is how police procedure really operates, as Thorne revisits a ten-year-old case. Having sent Donna down for ten years for organising the murder of her husband, Thorne is given recent photos that show the victim is not only very much alive and living a comfortable new life, but also ready to kill anyone who might connect him with the old one. A fast moving, straight-up cop story in a series that is about to hit television. 

In for a Penny, In for a Pound

By Tim Waterstone

Corvus 368pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This seems to be a roman à clef. The characters include a publisher, one of his authors (a flamboyant female bestselling novelist) and the friend who is financing his firm, the younger son of a powerful newspaper proprietor. By the time an Australian tycoon gets involved I was utterly muddled by Nick and Ned, Huber and Hugh, Giles and James. Their financial machinations are incomprehensible to non-financiers, except for the fact that all the sums mentioned are at least six figures. A young wife sleeps with a charismatic politician twice her age. People conduct verbal jousts in top-floor offices with views of London, where a butler serves Earl Grey tea in exquisite bone china. Score-settling sagas are always more interesting once some journalist has winkled out and revealed who everyone is meant to be, and to an outsider without a key, this turgid tale seems more like a Jeffrey Archer novel than a revenge fantasy by one of London’s literati.

The Villa Triste

By Lucretia Grindle

Mantle 436pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Here is the perfect summer holiday read. Long, gripping and beautifully written, it tells the story of two young women who start working for the Italian resistance in the autumn of 1943. In parallel we read about a police investigation of the present day, after two surviving heroes of the resistance are found murdered. Grindle vividly evokes Florence as few tourists see it now, in filthy winter weather, and as none saw it in the past, under the cruel German occupation. An author’s note tells us that that the characters and their exploits are fictional, but inspired by the lives of real people and actual events. Their story certainly convinced and also absorbed me.

Lifeblood

By N J Cooper

Simon & Schuster 336pp £19.99 hb £7.99 pb order from our bookshop

One of the charms of the old-fashioned body-in-the-library story is that it reaches a logical end. The murderer is identified and all the characters go back to square one, without aftereffects, until the next episode. One of the major differences between that kind of fiction and more realistic contemporary crime fiction is that, in the latter, nobody can go back. The victim of violent crime – in this novel, rape – can never again be the person she was before it happened, and nor can those more peripherally involved, such as witnesses and family members. N J Cooper demonstrates this vividly in her second novel of a new series about an ambitious young criminal psychologist who returns to the Isle of Wight when a violent criminal, hunting for a previous victim who has built herself a new life, goes on the run there. An insightful, emotionally involving story with an intriguing mystery plot – highly recommended.

Tigerlily’s Orchids

By Ruth Rendell

Hutchinson 280pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

An ordinary block of flats in an ordinary street in an ordinary London suburb is inhabited by a collection of apparently ordinary people. But this is Rendell-land, where nobody is unremarkable. This eighty year-old’s psychological and sociological insight has not been blunted by age. If you are the sort of person who invents life histories for the other people in a bus or Tube, this book is for you. If not, perhaps not.

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