Three years before this story opens, two teenage girls were abducted. They are still imprisoned in an underground cell. Tortured, starved and raped, they are at the mercy of an unidentified man. One of the girls manages to escape but does not survive. The discovery of her body revives the dormant search for the other long-lost victim. Professor Joe O’Loughlin, the shrink with Parkinson’s disease who has appeared in Robotham’s previous thrillers, is called in to advise the Oxford police and, as always, gets personally caught up in the investigation. The combination of convincing characters, psychological expertise and a neatly constructed plot makes this an outstandingly good crime novel. It is also an interesting example of the power of restraint and allusion. Other writers have used similar plots and scenarios – in fact the abduction and misuse of young girls is something of a cliché in contemporary crime fiction. But this well-worn format usually includes explicit and even gloating descriptions of the horrors inflicted on the victims. Robotham’s story is all the more powerful for its understatement.
This traditional locked-room murder mystery is untraditionally set in first-century Rome. It is a corrupt capital city, where bread and circuses pacify the mob, while sexual licence and ostentatious hedonism occupy the rich. The despotic Emperor Domitian rules with a subservient senate. When one of the most corrupt and cruel senators is murdered at night, it is decreed that all his slaves – forty men and women – will be burned alive as the climax of the Roman Games, unless the actual murderer can be identified. The difficult task of detection is assigned to the senator known to history as Pliny the Younger. Events described in his letters appear in more dramatic form in this story, as do quotations from his contemporary, the poet Martial (Macbain is a classical scholar). The author may have taken some liberties with the historical record and included fictitious as well as real characters, but in this gripping first novel he not only provides an ingenious solution to the murder mystery, but also paints a convincing picture of a fascinating period.
When a novel is poised between literary fiction and crime, it can be difficult to decide which aspect should be promoted. One attracts more prestige, the other, or so it is generally supposed, more money. The Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay has won awards for literary fiction in the past, but Alone in the Classroom, based on the story of a real, still unsolved murder, ventures into the realm of crime writing. It’s a complicated story with a complicated structure, which flashes between people and generations, and between the distant past and more recent memory. A long legacy was left by events that took place in a school in rural Saskatchewan in 1929, when two young girls, both pupils of the enigmatic and eccentric principal, died in mysterious circumstances. There are other deaths – in war, in a train crash, and by fire. And there are unforgettable characters, in particular the brave and resolute Connie Flood, a schoolteacher in the 1920s and later a journalist. The narrow-minded and isolated community of a small prairie town is a familiar feature in Canadian literature, and a suitable one for mystery fiction. Many of us would have committed murder if we’d lived there.
Tania Carver is a pseudonym. She is actually Linda and Martyn Waites (the latter is the author of tough crime novels set in Newcastle). Their fictional detectives are also a husband and wife pair, Detective Inspector Phil Brennan and criminal psychologist Marina Esposito, who in this book become the victims rather than the investigators when their baby daughter is kidnapped and their holiday cottage set on fire. Then, with her husband in a coma, Marina gets a phone call telling her she must do as she’s told if she ever wants to see her daughter again. Much of the book consists of two-page chapters that jump between different members of the cast, and tell the tense, suspenseful story largely through dialogue. It has proved a successful formula in the previous three Carver novels – all bestsellers – and this one will doubtless do as well.
More from Saskatchewan: Donnie is a wannabe screenwriter, a house-husband and a film reviewer for the local paper, which his rich wife edits. They live in a grand and isolated house with their son, his dog, and a motherly neighbour, who babysits. But the picture is not as cosy as it seems at a glance. The first indication of trouble comes in snow-bound midwinter when Donnie finds the dog’s eviscerated corpse. From then on, tension and terror are ratcheted up. Donnie’s family and lifestyle are under threat; his past – its details a shocking contrast with his affluent adult lifestyle – is catching up with him, or perhaps has caught up already. This pillar of the Canadian community was once a slum kid from Glasgow convicted of an unforgivable crime. Has education redeemed him? Does he deserve this comfortable life? Well-written, tense and with some very nasty images, this isn’t Niven’s first book (without the extra initial J he has written four others), but it is his first thriller, and – but for its overly long, drawn-out ending – a good one.
Two years ago, when I interviewed Donna Leon for Literary Review, she told me, ‘I am passionate about two things – baroque opera and badgers.’ This novel, her 22nd, is about baroque music. Still set in Venice, it is the first not to feature Inspector Brunetti, following instead a Venetian musicologist called Caterina Pellegrini. She leaves a secure job in conventional academia to return home on a short-term contract in order to sort through trunks of papers left by a once-famous baroque composer and identify which of two present-day relations should be the heir. The papers, untouched for centuries, contain some delicious fragments of baroque music and reveal 300-year-old scandals. But Caterina becomes increasingly suspicious of the motives of her employers. This is only just a crime novel, in technical terms, but there is a mystery at its heart, and Donna Leon’s skill with intrigue, clues, suspicion and suspense means that even the most ardent Brunetti devotee ought to find this book a good read.