You might remember the name Jade Goody. She was a working-class girl who became famous via a Big Brother appearance, made a fortune, had cancer and ‘beat it’ but, when it recurred, died, leaving two sons. Although Goody is not mentioned, her life story must have been the inspiration for Val McDermid’s very enjoyable new book, in which the reality TV star Scarlett Higgins astutely manages her assets, markets her own perfume (like Goody) and becomes very rich. Then, like Goody, Scarlett gets cancer, which is much publicised, and dies. The book opens shortly after these events. Scarlett left her son, Jimmy, as the ward of Stephanie, her ghostwriter. When Stephanie takes Jimmy to America, he is abducted. The FBI and a London policeman cooperate in searching for them, but the solution clearly depends on past events as Stephanie remembers them. The very clever construction of the narrative, the careful, credible creation of character, and a suspenseful plot combine to make this an excellent read – which, being without any ‘yuk factor’, is a new line for Val McDermid.
Locke’s brilliant first book, Black Water Rising, examined the civil-rights marchers of the Sixties and what they had become in twenty years. This equally impressive novel is set in the present day, though the weight of history lies heavily on it. At Belle Vie, a historic plantation in Louisiana, descendants of slaves re-enact their ancestors’ lives for schoolchildren and tourists. One of them is Caren, unmarried mother, lawyer manquée and the place’s immensely efficient manager. She now lives with her daughter, Morgan. Caren has a passionate, possessive love for Belle Vie, where she supervises re-enactments, wedding parties and all the other universal stately-home money-spinners. Then the body of a Latin-American field worker is found in a shallow grave, and the owners of Belle Vie decide to sell the estate. Everything is going wrong and Caren, as always, must cope. This claustrophobic and highly atmospheric tale is illuminating as a portrait of a time and place. It’s also a fascinating mystery story by a remarkably accomplished writer.
My bookshelves of review copies have taken on a mournful aspect. About three-quarters of new crime fiction is in a black dust jacket – usually an appropriate colour. However, in the case of Christopher Fowler’s most recent offering, the solemnity is a little misplaced. This quirky series, which describes the Peculiar Crimes Unit and its elderly stars, Bryant and May, does include macabre and horrifying passages, but they are rendered almost cheerful by the wit and humour of the writing. Not to everybody’s taste, but if you like oddities, this series is a very good example.
Lots of enjoyable insider politics in this book: a governor of Texas wants to run for president and his wife, sick of receptions and public appearances, wants to go back to working as a nurse. But the story’s real setting and subject is the no-man’s-land between the American border wall and the Rio Grande, where there is constant tension between the Americans trying to keep Mexicans out and the Mexicans who dream of getting in. A saintly Mexican doctor has left his rich Chicago practice to return to the Texan shantytown he grew up in. There he cares for the poorest of the poor, living in hopeless squalor in the richest country on earth. In both lawless Mexico and in Texas itself, power comes from the barrel of a gun, so when the governor shoots three (admittedly criminal) Mexicans his popularity soars. This is a gripping story, well told, but it’s also propaganda, hardly disguised, for a worthy cause.
Set in a small town on the Norfolk coast, the story moves in alternate chapters between 1983 when Corrine, aged fifteen, was convicted of murdering another girl from her school, and 2003 when an ex-policeman, now a private detective, arrives to investigate what may have been a miscarriage of justice. Had Corrine really been acting alone? What had been going on in the secretive and inward-looking little town? Teenage goths, possessed by adolescent angst and existential misery, ran wild. Apparently respectable adults committed secret crimes. The atmosphere of mystery and misery is like an ever-present thundercloud. In alternating between two times, the gear changes are sometimes rather jerky. But this novel has been greeted with a unanimous chorus of praise, which I am now joining.
When a little-known British actor is offered the lead in the ‘Scottish play’ in a little town in upstate New York, he and his wife Lara leap at the chance. They arrive in blistering heat to find themselves quartered in a squalid, filthy house with a sinister reputation. But it’s a friendly town, with new playmates for the children and, much to her surprise, Lara’s first boyfriend, now a world-famous Hollywood star. She knows it’s dangerous to see him, but not quite how dangerous, as one thing leads to another, and low-level nervousness turns into full-blown terror. This is a hyper-feminine book, with events seen from Lara’s point of view and through a veil of constant anxiety about contraceptives, tampons, cosmetics, cooking and childcare. Despite some repetitious padding, it’s a good, enjoyable story.
Translated from the German and written by a Berlin defence lawyer, the story covers a trial in which a young attorney finds himself acting for the killer of his girlfriend’s father, his own mentor. His client refuses to defend himself, saying only that his actions were justified. In a German novel that concerns crimes of the distant past, it’s not giving much away to reveal that the events that motivated the killer took place during the War. What is unexpected is some expert factual information about the status of such criminal offences and the German code of law. In effect, the lawyer-author exposes an actual scandal at, as the jacket copy explains, the ‘heart of German justice’. Shocking if, as it seems to be, true.
A good start to a promised series featuring Spike Sanguinetti, a Gibraltan lawyer. He crosses to Tangiers hunting evidence to prevent the extradition of an old friend who is on the run, suspected of murder. Spike gets involved in Moroccan big business and politics, meets a beautiful Bedouin girl, undergoes the almost obligatory torture, and doggedly solves the case.
Australian doctor Anya’s second adventure. This time she’s on a gigantic cruise ship, her holiday ruined by investigating the murder of a young girl and the subsequent shooting of a crew member. It’s a good, well-written story, but read it as a fascinating and awful warning, not simply about the actual increase in crime on cruise ships but about the appalling details of life behind the scenes in today’s waterborne Babels.
A combination of interwar English country-house romance, family history-mystery concerning the disappearance of a young woman decades earlier, and a murder investigation started when a skeleton is found under a tree in the grounds. The plot is complex but the narrative deftly steers through the undergrowth of clues and carefully described human relationships. Very enjoyable.