The Farm by Tom Rob Smith; The Strangler Vine by M J Carter; The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (Translated by Victoria Cribb); The Madness of July by James Naughtie; The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson; Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty; Toy Taker by Luke Delaney; Ripper by Isabel Allende; Casting the First Stone by Frances Fyfield; The Dead Can Wait by Robert Ryan - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

February 2014 Crime Round-up

  • Tom Rob Smith, 
  • M J Carter, 
  • Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (Translated by Victoria Cribb), 
  • James Naughtie, 
  • Peter Swanson, 
  • Louise Doughty, 
  • Luke Delaney, 
  • Isabel Allende, 
  • Frances Fyfield, 
  • Robert Ryan

The Farm

By Tom Rob Smith

Simon & Schuster 353pp £12.99

In a new variety of Scandinavian noir, the British author Tom Rob Smith, whose previous thrillers have been set in Russia, has turned to a different kind of mystery. The narrator, Daniel, believes his English father and Swedish mother have retired to a peaceful idyll in rural Sweden. But suddenly his father rings: his mother has been committed to a psychiatric hospital and has disappeared without trace. Then his mother rings: she is the victim of a terrible conspiracy but has escaped and is coming to take refuge with Daniel. He can’t tell whether she’s paranoid or persecuted, as she describes the reality of life in a Swedish version of Cold Comfort Farm, where the neighbours range from unfriendly to threatening and her husband seems to be on their side. Then Daniel’s father arrives and tries to convince him that madness has taken grip of his mother. Fantasy or truth? Whose side is Daniel on? And if he goes to Sweden, what unwelcome secret will he discover about his parents’ past? This book is extremely well written and gripping. While I couldn’t put it down I couldn’t wholly enjoy it, because so many of the characters are either hysterical or horrible.

The Strangler Vine

By M J Carter

Fig Tree 352pp £14.99

Miranda Carter has previously written books about Anthony Blunt and the monarchs of Britain, Germany and Russia on the eve of the First World War. This absorbing thriller is her first novel, and although she carries her learning lightly and imparts it unobtrusively, its readers will learn a lot about India and British empire-building. The story begins in Calcutta in 1837, a time when the East India Company ruled the subcontinent with the British army acting as its enforcer. Recently arrived in India, Lieutenant William Avery is sent off with an eccentric civilian on a secret mission to find the famous writer Xavier Mountstuart, who has disappeared. It is a dangerous journey, for innocent travellers are the prey of murderous Thugs. Even when they reach the British lines the ill-assorted group finds itself facing new dangers and problems. The story is exciting, the mystery real and its setting vividly evoked – the reader can almost feel the sticky heat and smell the pungent air. Apparently Avery will be the hero of a series of novels, and I am already looking forward to the next one.

The Silence of the Sea

By Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (Translated by Victoria Cribb)

Hodder & Stoughton 432pp £13.99

Scandinavian noir is now a huge subgenre of crime fiction. Nearly all of the books that get translated into English are, in their own ways, competent and clever novels which show the dark underside of the clean, Ikea world we imagine Nordic nationals to inhabit. This book is no exception. Well written and translated, it begins with a Mary Celeste-type of ghost yacht hitting an Icelandic quay. Where are the crew? Where are the father, mother and their identical eight-year-old twins who set sail from Lisbon? The writing is excellent, the investigation scrupulous and the outcome miserable.

The Madness of July

By James Naughtie

Head of Zeus 352pp £12.99

The broadcaster James Naughtie has set his first novel in the 1970s and in the world which he has reported on throughout his career as a political correspondent. The hero is Will Flemyng, once a spy, now a Foreign Office minister whose dangerous and dishonest past is coming back to trouble him. His personal life is another burgeoning problem. He has a uniquely forbearing wife, one brother who lives on the family estate in Scotland and another who has taken their American mother’s name and joined the US secret service. The book begins with difficult-to-distinguish characters and incomprehensibly allusive conversations, but illumination soon comes when the action moves to a Buchanesque setting in Scotland. This book is written from the viewpoint of an insider, at ease in the corridors of power and the leisure haunts of the powerful in London and Washington. A slightly perfunctory thriller plot is redeemed by good writing, vivid scene-setting and knowledgeable descriptions of the lifestyle of politicians.

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart

By Peter Swanson

Faber & Faber 304pp £12.99

This neatly devised novel has an intriguing plot. It’s 20 years since George’s college girlfriend, an 18-year-old freshman from Florida, disappeared after one semester. He soon discovered that she was not the person she claimed to be, having assumed someone else’s name and committed various crimes. All the same, he has never managed to care about anyone else. He is living alone, holding down a dull job and conducting a desultory affair when she reappears in his life begging for his help. Her stories shift shape with each telling, but George swallows them whole. This dry stick of an accountant is no hero, but he stays involved until the dramatic end.

Apple Tree Yard

By Louise Doughty

Faber & Faber 448pp £7.99

It is forty years since Erica Jong’s novel Fear of Flying popularised the expression the ‘zipless fuck’. Back in the early days of women’s liberation, women – or at least some women – dreamed of uncommitted, unemotional sex, a temporary and purely physical relationship dependant on never getting to know or love the man involved. This gripping story reminded me of Jong’s fantasy. Yvonne, a distinguished scientist in her fifties and happily married for thirty years, has two grown-up children and an important job. She is on her way out of the House of Commons after giving evidence to a select committee when she catches the eye of an unknown man in a dark suit, who leads her along dim passages to a broom cupboard in which they realise Jong’s scenario. It is clever of Louise Doughty to have made this unlikely scene credible, for the rest of this well-written, original novel is built on it. The one-off encounter leads to further meetings, during which the couple have sex in semi-public places, until the relationship leads to murder.

Toy Taker

By Luke Delaney

HarperCollins 448pp £12.99

A man silently picks the sophisticated modern locks of a prosperous house in north London. He knows the way to a child’s bedroom, creeps up without waking the older children or their parents, shows the sleepy infant an irresistible object and carries him away. The abduction is not noticed until the next morning. The police leap into action, led by DI Corrigan who has just been transplanted from a nick in south London to Scotland Yard. The detectives are literally clueless until another similar abduction takes place. From then on, Corrigan and his team are driven to the eventual solution not so much by reason as by inspiration. The story would have been more exciting if it were more credible. I could just about swallow the ease with which the latest locks are picked and the fact that the burglar alarm happened to be switched off. But even the yummiest of mummies is woken by the slightest of night noises. And wouldn’t the police just tell everyone to get a chain for the door?


By Isabel Allende

Fourth Estate 496pp £12.99

This is a long, leisurely portrait of hippies in San Francisco and their computer-smart teenage children. Murder comes a good second to the characters and setting, but the writing is seductive and the observations are wide-ranging. As a crime novel the book does not really work, but it’s an excellent read.

Casting the First Stone

By Frances Fyfield

Sphere 304pp £13.99

The follow-up to last year’s excellent Gold Digger and, obliquely, to earlier Fyfield novels featuring Sarah Fortune, who also reappears here. Like all Fyfield’s work, this is an elegant, original and subtle crime novel and highly recommended.

The Dead Can Wait

By Robert Ryan

Simon & Schuster 480pp £18.99

Dr Watson effectively deals with spies, criminals and secret weapons (including the first tanks) while Sherlock Holmes is occupied elsewhere. This Great War novel is a clever and interesting period piece.

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