ELIZABETHAN drama's beautiful and damned darling Christopher Marlowe describes how it all might have happened in a bitter chronicle supposedly written on the eve of his own murder, perpetrated in a house in Deptford on 30 May 1593. Ripe turning- rotten period detail, and featuring duplicitous government spymasters, false lovers, double agents, revenge and magic (the great necromancer Dr Dee makes an appearance, trailing a reek of sulphur and dung), as Marlowe's comeuppance draws near at the hands of a seditious plotter signing himself Tamburlaine, after the bloody hero of Marlowe's greatest play. The sort of narrative that you can smell on your hands after turning the pages, with proper attention paid to the pleasures and perils of illicit sex and the importance of seeing and savouring all that's on offer before the lights go out for good.
SPECTACULAR cock-up of police sting intended to catch Colombian drug-traffickers conned into selling a huge consignment of cocaine to undercover cops in a Heathrow hotel leads to shoot-out with rival gang in which both guilty and innocent die. Suspicion of spilling the beans falls on maverick detective, Stig Jenner. But is he as bent as his detractors believe or has he been set up by ill-wishers? Investigation into his guilt or innocence by D1 John Gallan (conceivably the straightest cop on the force) and his partner and secret squeeze, DC Tina Boyd, uncovers criminality on a vast scale by major villains who employ torture, menaces and murder as everyday business several voices. with the best of it spelled out by the cop-under-a cloud, Jenner. Much broodng about his dreary marriage (his wife allows herself three Silk Cut a day, cleaning her teeth after each cigarette), the decline of London pubs and the horrors of junk food: 'He'd already had a McDonald's Big Mac Happy Meal down the road and it had "just started to repeat on him. That was the thing he hated about Big Macs: they took about ten seconds to eat and about ten hours to get rid of.' Not quite the express ride delivered by Kernick's two previous novels. But the asides and the observations undeniably beef up the texture of the book, lending muscle to its hardedged authenticity. If you still think that real criminals are anything but cruel. vicious and vile here's the corrective. Forget the romance. Bad guys make bad neighbours.
RETURN of John Ray Horn - once well known as dime-Western hero Sierra Lane, but no longer an actor after serving a jail sentence for laying out a minor studio czar, and now reduced to earning his bread in 1940s Los Angeles collecting debts owed to his one-time screen sidekick Joseph Mad Crow, who now runs a small-time casino. By chance he finds the beautiful Rose Galen (lost love and forgotten movie star with whom he shared billing in her last film) strangled in the rooming house where she's gone to ground. Horn instigates a search for the luUer, awaking memories as he hunts for clues. A very superior whodunit, rich in period detail (Dinah Shore sings on the juke box, Hedda Hopper spouts gossip on the radio) and aching with the kind of nostalgia produced by that unique movie fusion of trash and true feeling. Wright makes skillful use of old Hollywood scandals in his plot. There are echoes of the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle case in which the starlet Virginia Rappe died after a barbarous sexual assault, and the murdered Rose is credibly' based on Louise Brooks, whose screen career sadly petered out in the late 1930s. The research is thorough and well digested. But the book's real triumph is one of sensibility. Horn pursues his investigation in the spirit of his screen persona, Sierra Lane, whose films always carried the message that, whatever the odds, 'good will prevail'. Horn no longer believes in the just and happy ending, but he still strives to make it happen. Deeply satisfying stuff; exciting, intelligent and tender where it most matters.
ROBERT Edric has been sounding off recently about how crime writing would benefit from a swift, contemporary boot up its old traditions, an argument you can't really fault, except that the revolution's been up and running for a while now. Think of Reggie Nadelson's bleak view of contemporary London; think of James Lee Burke's laments for the American South; think of Sara Paretsky's rummaging into the full bag of American dirty political tricks. None of them has been hailed by the champions of so-called 'literary crime', a genre which surfaced last year and to which I'd say Edric belongs. But all three strike me as much more original and adventurous than anyone from the so-far nebulous British new wave. Siren Song is the second novel in a trilogy featuring a very glum private eye named Leo Rivers, whose office in dockside Hull looks out onto a fruit warehouse. On summer nights the street smells of oranges. Leo is hired to investigate the death (and, presumably, the murder, although the body is never found) of a good-time "girl -named Helen Fowler who was drowned in the muddy Humber after, it is claimed, falling off a yacht owned by her boss, property developer Simon Fowler. Rivers starts to ask questions and discovers that Fowler is altogether bad news, involved in government corruption, immigration and housing rackets, usually with official connivance. He yearns for respectability and is prepared to commit murder to achieve it. The plot is fiercely topical (especially in Hull, where immigrants and housing are both incendiary topics), but Edric's handling of it strikes me not so much as tentative. but pedestrian. Action, when it is allowed to break out, is well handled (there's a fine moment when Rivers disrupts a PR drinks party), but all that's used to edge the book forward most of the time is talk and more talk. Scenes are allowed to go on for too long. There is no cross-cutting. Circumstances are talked out rather than acted out. The narrative is dense; the book feels airless. Fortunately, there's also a love story of sorts seaming the plot, and Edric's treatment of the sexual politics of the situation is subtle and intriguing. He is a considerable writer and we are lucky to have him. Sad to say, I found Siren Song heavy going, but I look forward to his next.
SERIAL killer Bob Backus - known with fear and dread as The Poet - comes out of hiding to wreak more bloody havoc. Harry Bosch, retired from the force and working as a private eye, joins the hunt when he suspects that a friend whose death was supposedly due to a dodgy heart may also have been a victim. Solid and convincing detective work which reveals how The Poet selects targets who no one is going to spend too much time looking for: he picks up customers in a desert brothel town where no one knows them or where they're going to. Sombre background of Bosch's own marital unhappiness, with a wife turned professional gambler and a daughter he rarely sees. Slam-bang showdown with cop and killer fighting for survival on flooded LA waterways. One of Connelly's best, with some speculation as to Harry's future plans in a lonely world. The good news is that the LAPD want him back on a short term contract. Readers may want to join in the celebrations.
UNITED Nations rookie Nick Lorimer is posted to war-torn Beirut and falls for the beautiful Reem, unaware that she is secretly a suicide bomber trained by terrorists and that he has been chosen as the one who can give her access from the besieged western sector into the Christian east and thus get her close to the man she has been ordered to kill. Inevitably they fall in love, but will it prove stronger than duty? The real stuff, as always, from Fullerton (Reuters's local bureau chief during the Lebanon civil war), with no easy solutions, no false heroics. People, place and problems keenly defined. Fullerton's account of a conscience driven undercover war makes painful, timely reading.