Philip Oakes

Crime Round Up June 2004

  • Susan Hill, 
  • Elmore Leonard, 
  • Giuseppe Genna, 
  • Reggie Nadelson, 
  • Laura Wilson

The Various Haunts of Men

By Susan Hill

Chatto & Windus 446pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Not so much a novel as a lit-biz enterprise, one that's already going strong, with one big book in place and the promise of two more to come from the same author. with the same supercop hero ('the enigmatic detective Chief inspector Simon Serrailler'), the same snug cathedral town and, presumably, the same rapt itemising of rooms, furniture, food and gardens which sometimes sounds like a litany for Middle England. Susan Hill is a good and original writer, but she has her models. And the model here is the veteran P D James, whose grip on the homegrown detective-story occasionally feels like a death-lock. Hill is no copyist, but the characters and sympathies here have been rehearsed in someone else's casting": house. Serrailler, for instance, is a brilliant Amateur artist (landscape only) as well as a detective, just as Commander Adam Dalgliesh (the P D James sleuth) is a gifted poet, although we've been given scant evidence of the fact. Both men are sex on legs, whose impact on women is devastating. But, although romance is palpitating in the wings, it's rarely allowed on stage. Actual sex is out: uber-people (both James and him display a fondness for toffs) don't seem to do it. Enough carping for now. Within and frequently beyond its own defined limits. Susan Hill's book is a triumph: cunningly plotted, shrewdly characterised, with both the place where everything happens and the locals burnished by a kind of contentment which is cruelly scuffed by a serial killer who abducts four people. The search for the victims - both men and women, young and old - is headed by DS Freya Grafiam (newly divorced and fleeing from London), who is instantly smitten by the enigmatic Serrailler. The investigation is decently done; so is the ultimate whodunit revelation (the motive persuasive, if mad). But what really distinguishes Hill's crime debut is her sure sense of the macabre - a friendly stance which turns sinister; the mounting unease which seeps like sweat through the community's skin. Hill has an understanding of evil that is both acute and disconcerting. It is one of her unique properties. Another is faith in the good life she champions and trusts (sometimes mistakenly) to hold back the dark. Both qualities are more important than any stylistic borrowings. Halfway through the book the author's admiring tally of middleclass lifestyles, décor and restaurants began to remind me of an estate agent's passionate pitch for the exurbanite dream. But Hill knows better. She also introduces you to the demons in residence, and her book is guaranteed to keep you wide awake and fearful. For the first time in years, P D James has serious competition

Mr Paradise

By Elmore Leonard

Viking 304pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

ANTHONY Paradiso (aka Mr Paradise) is a retired, 84-year-old lawyer who combines his passions for sex and sport by watching football on TV with two scantily clad cheerleaders, Kelly and Chloe (who, respectively, double as a catalogue model for Victoria's Secret and a top-dollar escort), going through their randy routines within groping distance. The evening ends badly with a bungled contract killing that leaves two bodies (one of them Mr P), two disgruntled killers, someone with a new identity and a box fid of booty that's going begging. Investigation by widower Detective Frank Delsa, who falls tenderly and totally for the surviving cheerleader. Glittering black comedy with a razor-sharp cast of crooks and conmen slicing through a labyrinthine plot, laid out in part by duplicitous lawyer Arvan Cohen ('You can't trust him, he talks out of both sides of his mouth at the same time'). Cohen, who removes the photograph of his wife from his desk when he's dealing with criminals and ex-cons, runs an agency for hitmen, reasoning that, for a 20 per cent cut of their fee, he's offering a useful service to society. Very funny, exceedingly tough and for most of the time told in dialogue sharp enough to draw blood. Strange similarity to the stories of the grand old British novelist Ivy Compton- Burnett (1 884-1969), who employed much the same narrative technique. Is it happenstance or could it possibly be hommage? With Leonard, having fun with his thirty-eighth novel, anything's possible.

In The Name of Ishmael

By Giuseppe Genna

Atlantic Books 444p £12.99 order from our bookshop

NIGHTMARES for our time emanating from inexplicable murders, committed by an assassination bureau known as Ishmael and beginning in Milan in 1962, when a child's body is planted beneath a plaque erected to WW2 partisans and charismatic Italian politician Enrico Mattei is killed in an aeroplane explosion. The murders multiply, each one signaled in advance by the death of a child, and two Italian detectives pursue independent inquiries, despite official indifference. There are hits and misses: Pope John Paul twice escapes assassination, as does Henry Kissinger; Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister, is killed; Princess Diana and Dodi A1 Fayed die in a Paris car crash. But there are no arrests, no obvious motives to explain the deaths. More to the point, the investigators decide there is no one person responsible. Ishmael himself does not exist. He is not a person but an idea - that America should remain involved in Europe. What's at stake is not the fate of individuals, but the fate of nations. Alan Furst - the best of all espionage writers - describes this book as 'a dark, seductive literary intrigue', but while I see the reasons for his admiration I remain unseduced. In the Name of Ishmael repels all boarders. It is dauntingly intelligent and resolutely cryptic. The clues that it offers do not lead to explanations; its mysteries are not meant to puzzle but to intimidate. To take it on, you will need extended reading time and a strong heart. If you fail to recognise the world it depicts, you should count yourself lucky.

Disturbed Earth

By Reggie Nadelson

Heinemann 341pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

WORLD War Two thriller, set in 1942, with civilians dodging bombs in brutally blitzed London, where women face extra peril from a blue-eyed fighter pilot, who is one of the gallant Few guarding the skies, but who is also a deranged murderer, strangling and mutilating his victims on terra firma. Well-drawn, if predictable, cast of characters: Rente, the gutsy young prostitute devoted to her son; Lucy, the suburban secretary ensnared in a fruitless office romance; Harry, the widowed ARP warden soldiering on as his world catches fire. What's most memorable, though, is Wilson's vivid picture of London itself - shabby and scorched, without the time or opportunity to lick its own wounds. Inspired. say the publishers, by the actual but little-known case of the 'Blackout Ripper', but shaped by Wilson into a gritty work of imagination that has the ache and authenticity of the real thing.

The Lover

By Laura Wilson

Orion 288pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

HARROWING horror-charged mystery in which pitiful Grey, an English girl who has spent most of her life in cruel institutions, comes to Tokyo to seek out and lay to rest an obsession which torments her. What she's looking for is a reel of film supposedly taken during the massacre of Nanking in 1937, when Japanese troops laid waste to the city and its populace. She has been warned that the f3m exists only in her mind. But if she can prove that it's real she thinks it will unlock her troubled past. Her search leads her to a survivor of the massacre, now working at the university in Tokyo, but at first he refuses to help. Working as a nightclub hostess, she becomes involved with the yakuza - the mafia who shape Japanese society - and especially with Fuyuki, an ancient mafia boss whose survival is said to depend upon regular doses of a secret elixir supplied by his ghastly minder: Ogawa, the Beast of Saitama. The recipe for the elixir becomes the second object of Grey's search. MO Hayder writes hauntingly of hidden Tokyo, where the past lies only just below the surface and whose concealment points to guilt and discretion on a scale that amounts to a national malaise. What she fails to do, I think, is maintain the essence of the mystery Grey is trying to penetrate. What's in the awful elixir is pretty evident from the first sip. But the horror remains potent. Bone marrows will be suitably chilled.

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