‘For 20 years I have been obliged to work for people I didn’t like. Heydrich. The SD. The Nazis. The Perons. The Mafia. The Cuban Secret Police. The French. The CIA. All I want to do is read the newspaper and play chess.’ By 1954, when this book opens, it has become very unlikely that Bernie Gunther will ever achieve that ambition. From Cuba, where we left him at the end of the previous book, he escapes to Florida, is sent back to a Cuban prison and from there to Europe, where the old cop is press-ganged into working for the French. His job is to identify war criminals in disguise, as they gradually make their way back home from camps and prisons. Gunther, an ex-cop, ex-prisoner of war, ex-acquaintance of senior Nazis, has only one aim: to get himself out from under. A complicated, clever thriller, beautifully written and evocative.
Milo Weaver is back on the job. He is a ‘tourist’: a killer employed by the CIA who travels the world murdering to order. To test his efficiency and obedience he is given a series of jobs. He bumps off the designated victims with guiltless efficiency. Then he is ordered to kill a teenage girl. With a daughter of his own, he cannot bring himself to obey. Privately investigating the reason for this hideous assignment, Weaver discovers wheels within wheels and treachery beneath deception. Steinhauer can be a powerful writer. Weaver himself, a cold-blooded killer and a doting father, is a complex character. The story is gripping but disgustingly full of explicit torture scenes, and the villains, such as a corrupt senator and a Chinese spymaster, are rather flimsy cardboard cutouts. Erika Schwartz, an obese German spymaster who gorges Snickers bars washed down with cheap Riesling, reminded me of a John le Carré character, but Steinhauer’s not as good.
Andreas Kaldis, a police officer, arrives in Mykonos as its new chief of police and is immediately confronted with a serial murder and kidnapping case. The disappearance of two young women tourists, both of them tall, blonde and travelling alone, would be bad enough. Then it becomes obvious that they are not the only ones. By coincidence, this is the moment when the remains of eighteen female murder victims are unearthed. Since Mykonos depends on its rich visitors, discretion is vital as Kaldis moves between the restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops that keep the island prosperous, and the peasant farmers, clergy and superstitious locals who more or less willingly share their home with the tourists. A competent crime novel enhanced by its setting.
Old, blind Sir Tommy Best (actor, entertainer, benefactor, and husband of British theatre’s best-loved Dame) has become a National Treasure. So when his body is found drowned in mud in a disused dock, the public turn the place into a shrine and the police authorities put the sharpest cop in London on the case. DCI Ned Bale learns about this idol’s feet of clay and, more interestingly, about the almost supernatural instincts of ‘seeing dogs’ and the symbiotic relationship between them and their human masters. I usually steer clear of any novel in which an animal is an important character, but even I enjoyed this well-balanced combination of instruction, mystification and action. It is the first novel by an award-winning documentary maker, and a very promising debut.
DI Marjorie Fleming, temporarily suspended from her job at the end of the previous book in the series, starts this one by returning to work to find that the trusty DS McNee is in a state of insubordinate gloom, the new DC has a secret and the superintendent is still angry with her. But there is no time to think about personal relationships or professional status. A pop festival has been planned on a headland accessible only by a single narrow bridge. It rains, the bridge collapses (as do several houses on the headland), electricity and telephones stop working and Fleming is marooned out of reach of official help. After this nod to the traditions of a Christie-style closed-circle detective novel, Templeton gets into her (entirely contemporary) stride, as the private lives of the Scottish detectives are considered in parallel with the suspicious deeds of murder suspects and victims. A satisfying story with a well-balanced combination of human and criminal problems.
Tales of idyllic years in Provence or some equivalent foreign Eden have become a publishing cliché. Rendezvous is an antidote to all those glorified memories. Its narrator is Simone, a Dutch woman in her thirties who has upped sticks and moved with her husband and children to a derelict mansion in a warm climate. Their plan is to turn the house into an upmarket B&B. Soon a team of local builders (for whom Simone is expected to cook a gourmet lunch every day) is at work. Next, inevitably, she is sleeping with one and being blackmailed by another. Murder follows. Simone is arrested, imprisoned and released, and returns to her dream life older, wiser and determined to write the history of their first year in France. The plot is well signalled, so emotion rather than action drives the story, and it is the seeming reality of the personalities involved on which it stands… or falls.
In his third crime novel, Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) describes the aftereffects of the disappearance of a young woman doctor: where is she, what made her drop out of her Dublin life, and why does her family seem so unnaturally uninterested in finding her? The series’ ‘detective’, a pathologist known only as Quirke, becomes utterly real as he fights his alcohol addiction and tries to behave well towards an unusual set of relations. Casting a realistic eye on the society he is part of, he remarks: ‘You can do anything in this country if you’re powerful enough.’ Knowing the right people and having money will pull all the required strings. This is an interesting and accurate take on mid-twentieth-century Ireland, a chilly place for cheerless people in a corrupt society. The pleasure a reader takes in the beautiful writing is dimmed if not destroyed by the story’s relentless gloom.