Jessica Mann

September 2011 Crime Round-up

  • Stef Penney, 
  • Robert Harris, 
  • Phil Rickman, 
  • Val McDermid, 
  • Isabelle Grey, 
  • Thomas H Cook

The Invisible Ones

By Stef Penney

Quercus 350pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Stef Penney’s first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves (2006), was both the Costa Book of the Year and the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year. To follow that hard act she has moved from nineteeth-century Canada to southern England in the 1980s. The Invisible Ones are gypsies, or travellers. Ray Lovell, a PI of gypsy descent, is commissioned to hunt for Rose Janko, who married into a travelling family but disappeared without trace seven years previously, leaving behind a baby suffering from a genetic disease. The story is told in Lovell’s voice, and also that of a highly intelligent and perceptive teenage boy who lives in a trailer with his mother and, in the same small encampment, his other relations. What readers will remember is the way of life that Penney describes so evocatively, and the myth-exploding details about travelling families. The plot is less interesting, its solution guessable long before the end, but I still found it hard to put down.

The Fear Index

By Robert Harris

Hutchinson 428pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Although Robert Harris’s writing always grips, this is far from being his best book. It is short of sympathetic characters, or even believable ones, and contains too many technicalities about international finance and artificial intelligence. The action takes place over the space of one day, and concentrates on two men, the founders and directors of a hedge fund. One has contacts, charm and people skills. The other is an obsessive ex-academic who has developed a computer programme that can outguess any other investor, whether mechanical or human. When this programme is given control of the entire investment fund, it instantly begins to make so much money that a billion seems like small change. Inevitably – since, after all, this is meant to be a thriller and is set in Geneva – the monstrous gadget turns out to be more Frankenstein’s monster than godsend. Things quickly start going wrong and the software is soon out of any human control. Presumably this is all an ‘awful warning’. But what are we supposed to do about it?

The Secrets of Pain

By Phil Rickman

Corvus 448pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

This long-running series has at its centre a turbulent priest and her daughter. Merrily Watkins is a village vicar who is also the diocese exorcist and a drinking, smoking single mother. Her eighteen-year-old daughter Jane is a self-proclaimed pagan. The parish is in Herefordshire, where all the best land and decent houses are being bought up by rich incomers, and work for local people is disappearing. Looming secretively in the background are those fearsome neighbours, the SAS. This could be taken as a ‘condition of rural England’ novel if it were not for a series of murders and disappearances that are – one assumes – less realistic. The narrative flips between points of view: the police officer in charge of the investigation, the vicar, her daughter, and her various admirers and supporters, who are not quite outnumbered by her enemies. An enjoyable version of the English village mystery; supernatural connections drag it into interesting new territory.

The Retribution

By Val McDermid

Little, Brown 416pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

McDermid’s series of crime novels, featuring the profiler Tony Hill and a predominantly female team of police detectives, appeared to have reached an end with the previous book when a millionaire TV star was convicted of murdering seventeen teenage girls and a police officer. But this book begins with Jacko Vance’s escape from jail. As he embarks on a series of meticulously planned revenge murders, Chief Inspector Carol Jordan has to divert her attention from the hunt for another serial killer of ‘working girls’. McDermid has always been expert at seamlessly shifting viewpoints between killers and cops, but in one way her writing has changed: there is still plenty of gore but far less disgusting detail. Every drop of blood is relevant and necessary for the story. Even the descriptions are quite restrained, and don’t gratuitously dwell on the intricacies of sadistic murder. It doesn’t diminish the book’s fascination, but did make it one I was glad to have picked up. 

Out of Sight

By Isabelle Grey

Quercus 368pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Patrick sets off to work as a homeopathic therapist with his son asleep in the car seat behind him. The baby is to go to the child minder, Patrick to his surgery. He parks behind the office as usual and has a busy day with a procession of patients. But it’s not until the fire brigade turns up, hours later, that he remembers the baby he left in the hot, suffocating car. His son’s death and his own guilt underpin the rest of the story, as Patrick parts from his wife, moves to France, meets women, evades women, and is forgiven but cannot forgive himself. Isabelle Gray has written scripts for many popular TV series, so she slackens and tightens tension with perfect timing. This is her first novel, and a very good read. I did think its basic premise was incredible. Then I searched the Internet and found pages of news stories about forgotten babies left in cars, just as frequently by mothers as by fathers. So this gripping tale is also plausible. 

The Quest for Anna Klein

By Thomas H Cook

Corvus 352pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

In a New York club an old man tells a younger one about his lifelong search for the woman he loved and lost in the early 1940s. Anna Klein was trained to assassinate Hitler. When the plot went awry she disappeared but nobody knows if she died. In the contemporary sections, the ghosts of the twin towers overshadow events; in the historical parts it’s the Second World War and the gulags. This is an ambitious novel, and its author wanted to do more than simply tell a story. But the portentous undertones serve more to slow any action than to increase excitement, and the constant jumps between periods and people interrupt the narrative’s flow. An elegant, thoughtful tale by an excellent writer, but one that was all too easy to put down.

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