The Blackhouse by Peter May; The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming; The Harlot’s Press by Helen Pike; Death and the Maiden by Frank Tallis; Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves; Fear Itself by Andrew Rosenheim - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

February 2011 Crime Round-up

  • Peter May, 
  • Charles Cumming, 
  • Helen Pike, 
  • Frank Tallis, 
  • Ann Cleeves, 
  • Andrew Rosenheim

The Blackhouse

By Peter May

Quercus 432pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Aged seventeen, Fin Macleod escaped the inhospitable climate and dour inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis by going to university in Glasgow. Now a Detective Sergeant of the Edinburgh police, he has to return when his boss sends him north to investigate peculiar similarities between a murder case in Edinburgh, and one on the island. On Lewis, Fin recalls people and episodes from his harsh childhood and begins to change his mind, not only about remembered events and one-time friends but also about the murder under investigation. His gradual enlightenment is conveyed with subtle, tragic conviction. From further afield such remote communities usually provoke outsiders to sentimental twaddle, but when I lived in Scotland, years before discussion of racial characteristics was outlawed, I heard many a generalisation about Highlanders and Islanders – they were glamorous and romantic or melancholy and/or drunk, products of a nasty and brutish lifestyle. It is from this latter viewpoint that Lewis and its traditions are described here. Peter May thanks the islanders for their generosity and help over five years; they may not regard this melancholy, off-putting novel, brilliant though it is, as the ideal recompense. 

The Trinity Six

By Charles Cumming

Harper Collins 406pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Sam Gaddis is a writer in between books with tax, school fees and alimony to pay. His agent can only suggest working his way out of debt by writing a hack job about Soviet intelligence. So when new information about another Cambridge spy comes to light, it seems both irresistible and too good to be true. Was Edward Crane the sixth man, and if he was, will Gaddis put his own and other peoples’ lives at risk by saying so? An interesting, complicated tale, in which the casual death-dealing taken for granted in the world of agents and traitors is – unusually, in a spy story – not accepted as part of some great game. Gaddis is brave and resourceful, but he remains more of a scholar than a man of action. Finally he has a chance to ask a killer the question. ‘What was it for? I just don’t see how you rationalise it, how you square it with your conscience.’ It’s a good question, seldom posed in this kind of fiction and not, of course, immediately answerable. But the harmless academic has his own resources: courage, desperation and a scholar’s brains prove a match for the man with a gun – just what we’d like to believe.

The Harlot’s Press

By Helen Pike

Short Books 370pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

London, 1820: fat Prinny has inherited the throne, his loathed wife Caroline has become the mob’s figurehead, and a group of conspirators is printing provocative pamphlets and planning terrorism. Seventeen-year-old Nell Wingfield has come to London with her mother and her black stepfather, once a slave, then a printer and now leader of a group of anti-government activists. Nell, a skilled printer herself, is back working the presses after an unexplained absence: in fact, she has spent six months in an expensive brothel, overhearing the political indiscretions of the ruling class, but was forced to flee when her patron was murdered. Nell must protect her handicapped sister and disguise her own knowledge and past while she secretly prints illicit pamphlets. This combination of bodice-ripping romp and political intrigue is based on the Queen Caroline Affair and the Cato Street conspiracy. An extremely complicated plot, inevitably didactic narrative and an unusual heroine (one with grey hair is surely a first!) add up to a very good read.

Death and the Maiden

By Frank Tallis

Century 384pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

Frank Tallis has a day-job as a clinical psychologist, which lends authority to his novels about late imperial Vienna, a series called ‘The Liebermann Papers’. Their dominant themes are music, monarchy, medicine and anti-Semitism. The Schubertian title of this sixth instalment refers to the unnatural death of an operatic diva, but its musical accompaniment is from a different composer, since one of the witnesses is the director of the Opera House, Gustav Mahler himself. Several other historical characters appear, including the city’s anti-Semitic mayor, Sigmund Freud and the Emperor Franz Josef. Inspector Rheinhardt and his unofficial colleague, the knowledgeable psychoanalyst Dr Liebermann, pick their way through an obstacle course of hostile witnesses, improper influence and incomprehensible etiquette, as their very different skills combine to reach a conclusion. A serious, well-informed and interesting novel.

Silent Voices

By Ann Cleeves

Macmillan 352pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

There can’t be many – or any – eccentric characteristics left to authors, to make their fictional police detective inspectors, male or female, stand out from the crowd of rivals. Vera Stanhope’s USP is that she is fat, middle-aged and apparently sexless. As such she is an unlikely denizen of the health club where she finds herself sweating in the sauna beside a murder victim. The body is that of a pretty, popular social worker with a teenage daughter. Suspicion immediately falls on a disgraced colleague who has been publicly pilloried because she failed to foresee the death of a toddler whose mother was one of her clients. The novel is a sensible, straightforward, satisfying police procedural, supplying a fair variety of plausible suspects, motives and clues, in a recognisable middle England. Publication is timed to coincide with the launch of a televised version. 

Fear Itself

By Andrew Rosenheim

Hutchinson 432pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

The Great Depression is in the past, but America is still riven by pessimism and dissension in the late 1930s when Jimmy Nessheim, a young special agent in the newly established FBI, is assigned to infiltrate a pro-Nazi organisation known as The Bund. It is easy to forget how easily the United States might have supported Germany in the mid-twentieth century when there were 40 million American citizens with German ancestry. Nessheim is one of them so makes a convincing conspirator, but he is an unsophisticated young man, not well equipped to deal with so dangerous an assignment and at a loss when he finds himself entangled in a web of high politics and presidential secrets. Many of the characters are historical figures, including Hitler, Hoover and President Roosevelt. An intriguing story, well told.

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