Philip Oakes

Crime Round Up April 2004

  • Boris Akunin, 
  • Frank Cottrell Boyce, 
  • Donna Leon, 
  • Michael Robotham, 
  • C C Humphreys, 
  • Tim Heald, 
  • Stephen Hunter

Leviathan

By Boris Akunin

Weidenfeld & Nicolson order from our bookshop

INGENIOUS, diverting, sometimes brilliant take on an Agatha Christiestyle whodunit, with assorted suspects including a fretful samurai, a clockwatching English pedant, the secret son of an Indian rajah, a jingoistic Brit spinster and a pistol-packing woman of mystery all in the frame for the murder of an eccentric collector and nine members of his Parisian staff travelling together on the maiden voyage of the Leviathan - the world's greatest and grandest steamship. They are quizzed and grilled, first by Police Commissioner Gustave Gauche (eager to retire in a blaze of glory), then by the silky Russian undercover cop turned diplomat, Erast Fandorin (first encountered in Akunin's novel The Winter Queen), who deftly demonstrates how Gauche gets his deductions all gloriously wrong. Plot surfeited with gaudy stereotypes and narrative cliff-hangers (the first victim is found clubbed to death, clutching a golden ship's badge of the Leviathan, presumably torn from the lapel of whoever did him in). Stories within stories, including an absolute cracker concerning a lost hoard of fabulous gems worth A50m. Set in 1878, with Fandorin catching the tone of the time by enthusing over his new Remington typewriter. 'Two porters', he claims, 'can carry it with no difficulty.' Escapist, exciting and altogether innocent. A lively, refreshing read.

Millions

By Frank Cottrell Boyce

Macmillan 250pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

RELENTLESSLY charming comic thriller (allegedly meant for children) about two schoolboy brothers - money-wise Anthony and saint-obsessed Damian - unwittingly caught up in the theft of a bagful of banknotes on their way to incineration on the eve of Britain's financial countdown to joining the Euro. But do the kids have time to dispose of £22m, theirs to spend in the few remaining days before the booty becomes worthless? Frisky variations on themes of honesty versus avarice, innocence versus opportunity and cops versus robbers, with Danuan, who tells the story, intermittently seeing visions (of Saint Nicholas, Saint Joseph and his own lately deceased Mum) while his money-crazed neighbours and the frustrated thieves try to lay hands on the loot. So winsome that now and then it makes your teeth ache. But genuinely engaging for all that

 

Doctored Evidence

By Donna Leon

William Heinemann 246pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

WHO killed grumpy, grasping Maria Battestini, an elderly Venetian widow, beastly to her penniless maid, hated by her neighbours, the mercenary mother of a crooked son? Suspicion falls heavily on the maid , who is subsequently found dead herself. But decent, diligent Comnussario Brunetti has his doubts. Too much money is filtering into too many strange accounts. And as a sceptical judge reminds him: 'One must always bear in mind that corruption, like water, will always find a place, however insignificant, to collect .' Stumbling but sound investigation conducted in a Venice heat wave, with Brunetti striving for justice and scuppering ambitions of dodgy underlings happy to scran1ble to the top over the bodies of the innocent. Subtly rendered family background in which the moral fibre is kept in trim by Brunetti's sardonic wife - equally disillusioned about State and Church, but certain in her heart about what's good and what's necessary. Elegant, unflashy fiction, serious without being drab, sharply intelligent and reassuring in its insistence that integrity is what really matters

The Suspect

By Michael Robotham

Time Warner 406pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

FIRST novel under his own name by veteran ghostwriter responsible, say the publishers, for bestsellers totalling 1.5 million copies. Does practice make perfect? Not entirely, but Robotl1a.m's upfront debut is a highly effective thriller centred on problems faced by clinical psychologist Joseph O 'Loughlin, one of whose patients, a young woman given to gruesome selfwounding, is found buried in a shallow grave by the Grand Union Canal, her body lacerated with multiple stab wounds - all of them self-inflicted. Was it murder or was it suicide? Other deaths follow, with O'Loughlin marked down by harshly sceptical D I Vincent Ruiz as prim e suspect. Inevitably (but not, you may feel, logically) O'Loughlin goes on the run, buying time to pursue inquiries into another of his patients , a deeply disturbed young man whose personal history is revealed as a saga of hidden violence, revenge and retribution. Well-engineered plot, with gathering horrors heightened by strains in O'Loughlin's imperilled marriage and relentless onset of Parkinson's disease. A gripper for most of the way, but Robotham has confected enough plot for at least three novels and the last quarter of this one is a mad scran1ble to fit it all in and dispose of the loose ends. He succeeds pretty well, but at times it's a close-run thing.

Jack Absolute

By C C Humphreys

Orion 310pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

VIGOROUSLY imagined, dashingly done espionage adventure with newly retired military man, Jack Absolute, returning to London in 1777 to find that playwright Richard Sheridan has stolen his name and person for his hit comedy The Rivals. Unwelcome publicity for Absolute, who is recruited by his old commander, General Burgoyne, recently appointed to lead an army down from Canada and crush the American Revolution and who needs Absolute to rally vital allies from Indian tribes, including the Iroquois, who once held him prisoner. New territory for spy fiction, but utterly convincing in its period and ethnic detail. Few comparisons unless you go back to Fenirnore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans. Quite bloody, thoroughly gripping, intensely readable.

 

Death and the Visiting Fellow

By Tim Heald

Robert Hale 220pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

DONNISH detective story - not quite a whodunit but one which enquires at second hand into a case of so-called 'murder by proxy' - which begins with slightly eminent Dr Tudor Cornwall, Reader in Crd Mairs at the University of Essex, jetting to Tasmania to offer his wares to students at St Petroc's University, Hobart, where everyone seems to be wise in wine, if not much else. Cornwall's old chum, the randy Professor Ashley Carpenter, has gone missing when the prof arrives, but reappears to plead his innocence when his pregnant mistress drops dead after sampling a glass of mulled wine, prepared by Cornwall to Carpenter's recipe. Was there something in the brew to which she alone was fatally allergic? Old animosities bubble to the surface as vats of Jolly Jurnbuck Central Australian Shiraz are downed by all present. But despite the truth-telling (Cornwall learns that Carpenter always longed to wreck his professional reputation) justice is not done. There's a dying fall, both jokey and inconclusive, but no real showdown. Heald is a civilised teller of a wry tale of revenge that seemingly goes unpunished. Amiable and ingenious, but short on pizzazz.

Havana

By Stephen Hunter

Century 403pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

RIVETING richly inventive account of Castro's coming to power in the early Fifties, despite a ruthless CIA plot to have him done to death before the revolution takes off. Cynical US spooks play the patriotic card to persuade legendary gunfighter and ex-Marine hero Earl Swagger to act as their hit man, while Soviet backers of the up-and-coming young Cuban lawyer spring a political prisoner - the legendary Speshnev - from the icy gulag where he's refused to die to mastermind plans for Castro's survival. Steadily mounting thrills and ironies as swagger and speshnev recognise each other not only as worthy opponents but as fellow spirits with total contemm for the establishments they've been installed to serve. splendid scene-setting in corrupt old Cuba, where (with US backing) crime czar Meyer Lansky attends to all matters financial on behalf of the Mob and enforcement is in the hands of Cuban torturers led by the sinister Ojos Bellos, who lingeringly blinds his victims before dispatching them. Of course we know that Castro lives on, but you'll still find about how it can be arranged. This is the latest in Hunter's run of exemplary thrillers featuring the iconic Earl Swagger (think Lee Marvin), all of them supplying credible, alternative footnotes to recent American history. Intolerably exciting: reserve time for undisturbed reading.

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