HOT to trot with what they hope is a new and possibly money-spinning genre, publishers are currently beating the drum for fiction they classify as 'literary crime'. It could become this summer's equivalent of chick-lit but posher. No one's yet come up with a precise definition (although simply literate crime would be handy for starters) but there's no doubt that Robert Edric's novel - his first in the crime field - is something substantial and distinctive, whatever heading it comes under. Drab factory setting in Hull where elderly seeker after sex has been beaten to death by teenage tarts and where introspective private eye Leo Rivers subsequently sets up shop, the bloodstains having barely dried. He is consulted by James Bishop, a grieving father whose daughter has been abducted and presumably murdered by imprisoned paedophile Martin Roper, who, unexpectedly, is about to appeal against his conviction. The unsecured deal is that, in return for information about the deaths of several missing girls and the whereabouts of their bodies, leniency will be shown. Rivers is hired to prise loose the missing information. What he uncovers is a tissue of lies as dense as a thermal vest, snugly buttoned about a body of police corruption, with dark, unimagined loyalties joining the living and the dead, the corrupt and the corrupted, which constitutes an impassable wasteland between the truth and any cleansing consequence. It is not the normal stuff of a whodunit. It is not the gun in the hand, but the idea in the head which wreaks havoc. What's at issue is not who did the deed, but the very nature of the crime, how and why it was conceived and concealed and how far and in which ways the guilt extends. It's like mapping an oil slick and realising, halfway through the survey, that the dark tide is about to lap at your own ankles. Edric has a clear, almost rain-washed style, eminently suitable for his Hull setting, but his characterisation is perfunctory. There's no indication how his private eye coaxes so many confidences out of damaged interviewees; too many motives remain under wraps, even &er revelations have been made. The best-drawn character is, without doubt, the most comprehensively evil; a veteran retired cop, loathed by all, a criminal dinosaur, abandoned even by hls own tribe. His end is never in doubt, but Edric's skill lies in the tragic resonance he gives to hs monster's decline and fall. Cradle Song is a strong and serious novel, soberly entertaining and well worth vour while. But it breaks no new ground, certainly not in the name of 'literary crime'. The publishers invoke Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as Edric's soul brothers. Good choice, but they are being over-selective. The company spreads further and wider than that. Add to the list Michael Connolly, Michael Dibdin, Eric Ambler, David Armstrong, Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine, whose great novel Asta'r Book sets and shatters all crime fiction rules), with P D James regally bringing up the rear. Literary crime has a full house already. Think hard who really deserves to join the list.
DEBUT thriller by author of TV's Taggart (matchless in its early days with Mark McManus), but barely recognisable as a product emanating fi-om the same sure hand. Initially promising set-up, with top Brighton cop Steve Madden called in to investigate murder of exotic gay only to mscover that the butchered body is that of hs own son who had confessed his homosexuahty only a few hours earlier. Much ado about Brighton's eminence on the gay scene, but little on the page to demonstrate its appeal. Heavily-plotted narrative involves bisexual millionaire who sanctions affair between wife and mafiosa photographer, with much blood-letting and thunderous climax on Beachy Head. Clamorous, gaudy stuff which suddenly falls flat. Ironically, it would probably work a lot better on the box.
LONG, sumptuous, near-emble account of Regency rogues - wicked bankers, City swindlers, crooked pedagogues and ladies on the make - all joined in the pursuit of the rich, hll, sometimes shady life. They are seen about their business by Thomas Shield, an exsoldier who survived the battle of Waterloo by being trapped beneath a dead horse and whose detestation of war and humbug sees him through an asylum and on to the staff of a moneygrubbing school at Stoke Newington (then a village on the outskirts of London) where the pupils include the young Edgar Man Poe. A plot stuffed with incident and character, with period details impeccably rendered and swindles picked out as prissily as bits of needlework. Who really is who is the theme of Taylor's book, but the sheer volume of evidence and investigation sometimes outweighs the prime concern. Richly, elegantly-written, but over-upholstered and sometimes immobihsed by its own hrniture and fittings. Probably unjust to complain about too much style. But the impulse to argue that less can be more is fiequently overwhelming.
ANOTHER spin on literary crime, with members of the Used Women's Book Club improving their minds and critical faculties by boning up on the classiest of writers (Virginia Woolf is the current morsel under review). The members are wrenched from the comfort of the page and confronted with real life and death when one of their husbands is brutally murdered. It's even worse than it sounds. The dead man, Rob, is a serial philanderer who has borrowed the Spitalfields flat of his childhood friend Larrv, (also well in with the \ group) for his adulterous fling, and that's where he's killed. Everyone's involved. Motives are ~asseda round like the common cold. Bryers gives his smart sex comedy a black but hopeful heart and a sharp sense of what it's like to live in contemporary London - especially Docklands, where the Ripper once walked and, as Larry puts it, 'in a certain light and mood all the luxury and wealth was so much designer stubble on the old sinner's face and it was still the secret haunt of Fagin and Bill Sykes'. Bryers lets fall some keen throwaway lines. A butch woman gardener looks like 'nymph who worked out' and the novels of Jane Austen 'are basicallv Mills and Boon written by a genius'. Some scary moments which linger longer than you expect and an ending which seems to have been saved, unwisely perhaps, from a short story. YOU can't have everything though. Witty, acerbic, 99.9 per cent excellent.
SIMON Kernick has laid claim to the London - more specifically, North London - crime novel and in his second outing sees off all contenders. Places count as much as plot, with the bodies piled high from Crouch End to Pentonville as professional bodyguard Max Iversson does battle with unknown assassins who double-crossed him while he was minding a dodgy night-club owner in the midst of supposed transfer of ownership. Stakes rise as Iversson is caught up in botched kidnap of sadistic gang princeling. Meanwhile, dogged, decent DS Gallan - supposedly investigating the death of a night-club bouncer - finds hlmself scenting major crime on Iversson's violent trail. Relentlessly pacy, with rousing, recreational sex, grisly torture, credible macho bonding and truly wicked heavies, all edgily projected against the mean streets, pubs and clubs of non-tourist London. Most marrowfieezinp": scene: a cordinntation between straight-arrow Gallan and sinister gang boss surrounded by cronies in cosy Barnsbury pub whose atmosphere meaningfully chills as contempt and hatred edge out the bonhomie. Shared narrative slightly strains coherence of dot. But the brilliantlv defined North London ethos - ambitious, chilly, threatening - hcks it all back into line.
SIXTH appearance of Sal Kilkenny, Staincliffe's single-parent private eye, chastely sharing modest Manchester house with single-parent dad. Dodgy case of alleged harassment brought by hotel receptionist who claims heavy and hostile bmthmg by.fdow employee. Investigation runs in tandem with Sal's daughter being bullied at school (why and by whom?) and a trawl around West Didsbury to see whether or not the neighbourhood would suit her monied house-hunting clients. Mounting tension in all directions. Didsbury, however up and coming, is sd a suburb where a lonely old couple can die of neglect and hypothermia. The bullying is closer to home than Sal has reason to suspect and the supposed victim of harassment is not the innocent she makes herself out to be. Increasingly anxious detective work, with whodunwhat uncomfortably linked with Sal's conscience-driven concerns. Admiring the Lowry Gallery in smartened-up Salford she wonders what happened to the people who lived in the warren of terraces that had been swept away: 'I don't think they moved into the smart new apartments.' Solutions belatedly reached. Blood is spilt but Staincliffe hints at a happy ending on the way. Unique in current British crime fiction: truthhl, affirmative and exciting. Planted in the real world and looking good on it.