A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson; Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid; Sacred Treason by James Forrester; The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh; The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor; Saints of New York by R J Ellory; The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

September 2010 Crime Round-up

  • Laura Wilson, 
  • Val McDermid, 
  • James Forrester, 
  • Jill Paton Walsh, 
  • Andrew Taylor, 
  • R J Ellory, 
  • Jed Rubenfeld

A Capital Crime

By Laura Wilson

Quercus 352pp £20

The third book in Wilson’s DI Stratton series is even better than the previous, prize-winning instalments. It is set between 1949 and 1953, and the story is based on fact: the notorious 10 Rillington Place case of John Christie, who was found guilty and hanged after six bodies were excavated in his flat and garden. Timothy Evans, Christie’s first-floor tenant who a few years previously had been hanged for the murder of his own daughter, was posthumously pardoned. Wilson paints a masterly portrait of a police officer agonised by the victims’ tragedies and by his own conscientious doubts. At the same time DI Stratton’s family problems weigh heavily on him. The parallel story of Diana Calthrop, trying to find a purpose in life after her wartime experiences in MI5, is equally absorbing, and the well-researched period details are tactfully used throughout, neither overemphasised nor underplayed. A small masterpiece.

Trick of the Dark

By Val McDermid

Little, Brown 464pp £18.99

Having in the past criticised McDermid for writing excessively graphic accounts of human suffering, I have to begin by saying that the violence in Trick of the Dark is emotional, and there are almost no explicit details of the several murders that take place over a period of many years in the novel. The book is all the better for this subtlety. The setting moves from northern England to London and on to the Isle of Skye, but always returns to Oxford, and more specifically to a woman’s college very like St Hilda’s, where a former student is unofficially commissioned to investigate the murder of a bridegroom at his own wedding reception. The victim is one of the few men in the story. Nearly all the other characters are women, and most of them are gay. A fast reader may get muddled by their complex relationships and similar names – Jess, J, Jenna, Jennifer; Corinna, Catherine and Charlie – and by their flashes back to contrasting childhoods. Good girls morph into bad ones, lovers into enemies – and back again – until the heroines and villains are finally identified. By which time, following breathlessly, many readers will be much better informed about lesbian lifestyles – and how easy it is for a clever woman to get away with murder.

Sacred Treason

By James Forrester

Headline Review 416pp £12.99

When an academic historian (James Forrester is Dr Ian Mortimer) writes historical fiction the story carries unusual authority. This one, set in 1563, takes us into a desperately insecure England: Queen Elizabeth sits on a shaky throne with William Cecil, her Secretary of State, propping it up through the agency of the ruthless and creepy Francis Walsingham. The Clarenceux King of Arms, one of the heralds, is a Catholic called William Harley, who is given a book containing a deadly secret. Receiving this dangerous gift turns him into a criminal on the run, his home destroyed, wife exiled and friends murdered. The hunted man becomes the hunter in an exciting chase complete with priests in disguise and priests’ holes, murder, mystery, infidelity, and mayhem at appropriately close quarters – an exciting and involving story full of period atmosphere.

The Attenbury Emeralds

By Jill Paton Walsh

Hodder & Stoughton 352pp £18.99

This is the third of Jill Paton Walsh’s pastiche Dorothy L Sayers’s novels, this time returning to Lord Peter Wimsey’s first case in 1921, which concerned the theft of the famous Attenbury emeralds. Decades later, in the 1950s, the emeralds are again causing problems. Are the jewels, for so long locked in a bank vault, the genuine emeralds? And if not, what are they, where are the real ones, and whodunnit? It is a good puzzle, but the principal pleasure of the book is in the skilled portrait of the austere postwar world and in seeing how a reimagined Wimsey, his wife Harriet and manservant Bunter have adapted themselves to it. An enjoyable and clever concoction.

The Anatomy of Ghosts

By Andrew Taylor

Michael Joseph 480pp £18.99

In 1786 the author of a book debunking belief in ghosts is commissioned to investigate rumours of a ghost in a Cambridge College. His aristocratic patron wants him to salvage the reputation of her son Frank, who is having a nervous crisis after seeing a ghost in the grounds during a licentious meeting of an undergraduate drinking club. Meanwhile the poor students wait upon the rich ones, the dons fight among themselves and the Master’s wife escapes. It is an atmospheric and elegantly told story with an interesting portrait of an academic environment rather closer to its superstitious medieval foundations than to the enlightened centre of scholarship it would soon become.

Saints of New York

By R J Ellory

Orion 464pp £18.99

Detective Frank Parrish, like nearly all New York cops in fiction, is an ‘aggressive alcoholic with twenty years on the career clock’ and a direct descendant of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He goes unafraid down mean streets (and all the rest) but previous lapses in police propriety mean that he will soon be out on his ear unless he agrees to see a counsellor every day. Parrish’s sessions with the therapist expose his life story: his heroic police officer father, now dead; his partner, also dead – killed on duty; his wife and family, alive but estranged. At the same time as undergoing what proves to be a traumatic analysis Parrish is on the trail of a killer. It’s a suspenseful and interesting tale, beautifully written in an all-American style. It was a surprise to learn that the author is actually British; but so, of course, was Raymond Chandler.

The Death Instinct

By Jed Rubenfeld

Headline 464pp £18.99

Rubenfeld’s first book The Interpretation of Murder, in which Sigmund Freud comes to America, became a bestseller after being featured on TV’s Richard and Judy Show. This sequel, equally long and densely written, and also full of period atmosphere, is set in 1920 when a French woman called Colette brings her mute little brother to New York and encounters Dr Stratham Younger, a psychologist, andJames Littlemore, a police detective. The story packs in a lot of material: bombs, explosions, shootings, kidnap, deception and revenge. There is gold bullion and highly valuable radium. Freud reappears, this time back home in Vienna, and in Paris we meet Marie Curie. Carefully researched and energetically told, The Death Instinct is likely to be as popular as Rubenfeld’s first novel.

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