Unlike many other crime writers, who switch regularly between series and stand-alone novels, Ian Rankin has stuck with John Rebus for most of his career. Rebus is now well and truly retired, suffering from such bad lung disease that he can’t climb the stairs to his Edinburgh flat without breathlessness and depressed by his physical decline. Happily for him, when a body is discovered in the boot of a semi-hidden car, DI Siobhan Clarke needs his advice, his knowledge and his active help. It’s clear that this case is linked to one Rebus dealt with in the past. He also helps Clarke less formally with a stalker who is tormenting her with silent phone calls and graffiti on her front door. Readers need to keep their wits about them as they pick their way through the complicated plot with all its secrets and many characters. Organised criminals see business opportunities everywhere and crush their rivals whenever possible; legitimate businessmen bend the rules in order to gain a similar advantage over their competitors; good cops give a little help to the bad guys in exchange for important information; bad cops give a lot of help in exchange for money. Through it all, Clarke does her best and Rebus outthinks criminals, corrupt cops and bureaucrats to arrive at the truth. He is one of crime fiction’s great creations. Rankin lightens the grimness of Edinburgh’s criminal world with some acute observations on life and the way people manage it. More of those, and more Rebus and a little less plot, would make In a House of Lies even more appealing.
Guy Bolton’s first novel, The Pictures, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association 2017 New Blood Award. His second is a violent, engrossing work set in Hollywood and Las Vegas in the late 1940s. Its agreeable hero, Jonathan Craine, was once a homicide detective married to a Hollywood star. After she died, he moved with his only son to an isolated farm to rebuild their lives. Now he is under intolerable pressure from a mob boss, who wants him to find out who killed a friend and collaborator. If Craine is to save his son’s life he has to return to the place and people he had come to loathe. Always accompanied by one of the mobster’s hit men, and helped by a clever journalist with secrets of her own, Craine encounters many of the most glamorous real-life figures in Hollywood as he fights through the brutality and terror of mafia rivalries. Fast-moving and written with a deceptively light touch, The Syndicate can only enhance Bolton’s growing reputation.
Few writers can keep readers interested over the length of 866 pages, but C J Sansom is one of those. In this mid-16th-century adventure, the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is sent to Norwich to assess the guilt of John Boleyn. Boleyn is awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, whose body was found grotesquely displayed on his land several years after she disappeared from his house. Shardlake cannot represent him at the trial but may appear as a witness. He has only a few days to find any evidence in the accused’s favour. His efforts are hampered not only by his own frailty and the malign activities of several people who would benefit from Boleyn’s execution and the forfeiture of his property, but also by angry locals. As society is moving from feudalism to capitalism, the brutal rich are becoming infinitely richer and the poor are left to starve. When they rebel, Shardlake and his assistants become embroiled in the ensuing terror. Built on substantial research and written with such confidence that the prose is both smooth and colourful, Tombland is a superb achievement.
For decades, most Irish crime fiction was written by men, but now more and more women are joining in. Dervla McTiernan’s first novel, The Ruin, opens twenty years before the main events of the novel, with the young garda Cormac Reilly sent to a derelict house to answer an emergency call. He finds a dead woman upstairs and two children in a dreadful state below. When the narrative moves to the present day, it is clear that much has improved in Ireland but that more still needs to be done to achieve the levels of safety and freedom enjoyed by women in some other European countries. When this novel was written, women with unwanted pregnancies, for example, still faced a journey to England if they wanted a termination. Cormac returns to the old case when a young man drowns and connections are made to the two hungry and battered children found in the derelict house. Nothing is straightforward. As he and the dead man’s family fight for justice, the full cruelty of Ireland’s treatment of children is exposed. McTiernan, who now lives in Australia, is gentler on the Church than she might have been, but she has written a moving and convincing novel, full of characters about whom it is easy to care.
Elly Griffiths, whose Ruth Galloway series has developed a strong following, now turns her attention to the gothic tradition that has had such an effect on the crime genre. Clare Cassidy is the divorced mother of teenage Georgie, who attends the school where Clare teaches English and creative writing. One of her colleagues is killed in a way that is reminiscent of a murder in a gothic short story that Clare uses in her lessons. Sections of the story are interspersed with the narrative, which is told partly from Clare’s point of view, partly from Georgie’s and partly from that of DS Harbinder Kaur, who is investigating the killing. More people die, Clare’s ex-husband causes trouble, she meets a new man, and all the intertwined stories roll on. This clever and entertaining novel has much to say about female rivalry, mothers and daughters, and the creation of fiction itself.
John Grisham has developed a huge following across the world for his clever, easy-reading legal thrillers. In The Reckoning he offers something rather different. This is a historical novel based on an overheard remark about a real case from the 1930s in which one prominent citizen murdered another for no apparent reason. Grisham sets his story in 1946. His killer, Pete Banning, is a war hero and landowner in Mississippi who shoots the local Methodist minister and refuses to give any reasons for his actions. The ensuing trial reveals nothing more, and Banning faces being sent to the electric chair. The nature of this kind of judicial killing is described in horrible detail. Grisham takes us back into Banning’s past in the war in the Philippines, which involved atrocious suffering. He also shows us Banning’s family, both then and now. His wife has had a nervous breakdown and has been moved to a mental hospital. His son and daughter try to make sense of the little they know about her and the marriage. Their unmarried aunt, who inherited half of their grandfather’s land when he died, provides what little physical and emotional security they have. Sadness piles on sadness. The potential destructiveness of particular ideas of honour and duty is clearly revealed, as are the shabby motives of all the peripheral characters who stand to gain from the trial, the punishment and their repercussions. This is a much tougher novel than last year’s The Rooster Bar.
Sara Gran is one of the most original crime writers at work today. Her sleuth is Claire DeWitt, who describes herself as ‘the best detective in the world’. She is damaged, dangerous, funny and highly intelligent. Her latest adventure opens with her in terrible pain, in an ambulance after a car crash. Her memory is shot, so she and the reader learn about the crash together. DeWitt lies, steals, takes drugs and commits all kinds of other crimes as she struggles with her past and present cases – and with the meaning and purpose of existence. This is not a novel for those who like there to be a body and a sleuth who searches for clues to the killer’s identity before interpreting them in front of an admiring audience. This is a novel for those who would admire the statement of an artist Claire encounters: ‘I am who I am because of who I am … I am not my results. I am my process.’ I loved it.