Mozart’s Last Aria by Matt Rees; Fragile Minds by Claire Seeber; Lily of the Field by John Lawton; The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller; The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

May 2011 Crime Round-up

  • Matt Rees, 
  • Claire Seeber, 
  • John Lawton, 
  • Elizabeth Speller, 
  • Oliver Harris

Mozart’s Last Aria

By Matt Rees

Corvus 304pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is not the first work of fiction to concentrate on the death of Mozart and the uncertainties surrounding it: was it natural or unnatural? Was there Masonic involvement? Was he involved in secret political or social machinations? Are there encoded secrets in his musical scores? In this novel his sister Nannerl, herself a musical prodigy, leaves her husband and children in their provincial remoteness and travels to Vienna to try to find an explanation for Wolfgang’s death. She gradually uncovers details of a conspiracy stretching from Vienna to Paris and from courts to cottages. Matt Rees has drawn a lively portrait of eighteenth-century Vienna and of characters whose names now live only because of their connection with the composer. This novel is well researched, very clever, and written in clean, suitably formal language marred only by the irritating habit of abbreviating the word ‘have’ into ‘would’ve’, ‘must’ve’, etc. This is an even better mystery novel than the author’s prize-winning series about the Palestinian detective Omar Yussef – and that’s saying a lot.

Fragile Minds

By Claire Seeber

Avon 416pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

There used to be a subcategory of crime fiction entitled – with reference to a line in an Ogden Nash poem – ‘Had I but known’. The heroines tended to be ineffectual young women who were brave but silly. Writers can no longer get away with female protagonists like this unless – as in this case – they are going round with head injuries that prevent them from realising something is wrong. Claire Seeber’s narrative switches between a detective inspector with family problems and Claudie, a physiotherapist at a ballet school. After a bomb goes off in Berkeley Square, right outside the school, Claudie can’t think straight or remember what she’s meant to be doing. Her chapters often begin with ‘I didn’t feel very well’ or ‘My head ached again’, but she doggedly perseveres in efforts to work out who her Australian friend and colleague really was and what has really been going on. It’s a good and original story, skilfully told, but too long. The atmosphere of sustained hysteria wore me out well before the end.

Lily of the Field

By John Lawton

Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press 400pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Two musicians and the whole gamut of serious music-making set the background for this rich and absorbing novel. It opens in pre-war Vienna. Meret, a child prodigy cellist, becomes the pupil of a famous pianist who has escaped Berlin. Later, the pianist escapes from Austria to England, while Meret is sent to Auschwitz. She plays in the camp orchestra, is rescued by the Russians and meets her mentor again in postwar London. The vital themes of the mid-twentieth century are demonstrated and discussed through these two characters’ experiences: the fate of Europe’s Jews, the bomb, the Cold War, and postwar politics and espionage. The second half of the book, set in 1948 at the height of austerity, becomes an unconventional police procedural as the fascinating Inspector Troy investigates a murder on the Northern Line. John Lawton’s books contain such a wealth of period detail, character depiction and background information that they are lifted out of any category. Every word is enriched by the author’s sophistication and irreverent intelligence, by his meticulous research and his wit. He uses real historical personalities, borrows living people’s actual names and recreates historical events as though he’d seen them. This is the seventh novel in Lawton’s Frederick Troy series and I am already longing for the next.

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton

By Elizabeth Speller

Virago 480pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Five years after the end of the Great War, Easton Deadall is a village of widows, children and old men, while the residents of the manor are crippled and traumatised, haunted by miserable memories and unsolved mysteries. In 1911, five-year-old Kitty Easton, heiress to the estate, disappeared from her home never to be seen again. Her mother insists she is still alive, but it is an unhappy house to which the architect Captain Laurence Bartram comes to advise about restoring the church. It’s a long story but by the end family mysteries have been solved and ancient mysteries exposed. Though published as crime fiction, the narrative is too leisurely to fit neatly into the category. It is, rather, a novel about sorrow – postwar grief, a bereaved mother, mutilated men and dysfunctional families – and secrecy, beautifully written and vividly imagined in a Wiltshire landscape created with the clarity of a photograph for the mind’s eye.

The Hollow Man

By Oliver Harris

Jonathan Cape 384pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Nick Belsey of Hampstead CID wakes up in the morning to find himself lying on the ground on the Heath, bleeding but unable to remember why. He knows that ‘his old life is beyond rescue’. But somehow he manages to carry on, not only pretending that he is still a CID officer and making full use of all the official facilities, but also illicitly making himself at home in a palatial Bishops Avenue house, the owner of which has gone missing. Marching self-confidently into city offices, exclusive clubs for millionaires and the shops and offices of Hampstead, this cheeky chappie gets away with unnervingly bold deceit and depradation. The story works as a thriller but it’s also a very entertaining read, all the more because the locations are so precisely described. It gives a new meaning to the expression ‘Hampstead novel’.

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