The Wrong Girl by Laura Wilson; This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham; The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell; Heads or Hearts by Paul Johnston; Stealing People by Robert Wilson; The Cellar by Minette Walters; The Savage Hour by Elaine Proctor; The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story by Martin Edwards - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

June 2015 Crime Round-up

  • Laura Wilson, 
  • Harry Bingham, 
  • Craig Russell, 
  • Paul Johnston, 
  • Robert Wilson, 
  • Minette Walters, 
  • Elaine Proctor, 
  • Martin Edwards

The Wrong Girl

By Laura Wilson

Quercus 384pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

It’s good to receive a book that one knows will be a treat to read, as Laura Wilson’s crime novels reliably are. She returns to the present day in this one. Her heroine is Janice, now in her sixties. As a teenager, Janice was involved with a band, became pregnant and was forced to give her baby up for adoption. Forty years on and her unknown daughter, Suze, rings Janice out of the blue. She has a daughter of her own, Molly, who has convinced herself that she is really Phoebe, a baby who famously disappeared and who, in portraits showing how she might appear nowadays, looks exactly like Molly. Suze and Molly are living in Janice’s old family home in Norfolk with Janice’s estranged brother, Dan. But Dan dies, Molly disappears and Janice finds that one of her ex-lovers, a rock star turned recluse, lives in the village. Wilson shakes and stirs these ingredients into a beautifully written, gripping and haunting mystery novel.

This Thing of Darkness

By Harry Bingham

Orion 272pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths suffers from a rare condition called Cotard’s Syndrome, the depressed and psychotic sufferers of which believe that they are actually dead. In Fiona’s case, this neurosis is combined with unusual brilliance and bravery. Having been assigned to the most boring job in all of policing (going through old files of cold cases), she persuades her boss to let her pursue a couple of unsolved crimes on the side. These turn into new, hot investigations that involve Fiona learning about telecoms, rock climbing and going to sea. It’s all very exciting and the book is well informed and well written. Bingham is the founder of the online Writers’ Workshop and the author of a fascinating blog about the problems and pitfalls of life as a professional writer. Do read it, and read this novel – both are well worth it.

The Ghosts of Altona

By Craig Russell

Quercus 432pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

By curious coincidence, this almost-gothic novel also features a detective suffering from Cotard’s Syndrome. Set in a realistically portrayed Hamburg, the hero, Jan Fabel, is head of the Police Murder Commission. Fifteen years ago he nearly died during the unsuccessful search for a missing girl, one of a pair of identical twins. Now the bodies of men who had been involved with her are being found, the victims of ingenious cruelty. The story, which includes nods to Frankenstein’s monster and other dark occupants of the European subconscious, twists and turns as the narrative alternates between criminals and detectives. The British author’s knowledge of German police procedure is impressive and his portrait of Hamburg is affectionate and informative. This is an excellent read.

Heads or Hearts

By Paul Johnston

Severn House 240pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

In the Edinburgh of the future, after the newly independent Scotland has broken up into separate city-states, the investigator Quint Dalrymple has somehow survived as an independent free spirit in a society kept under rigid control by its ‘City Guardians’. Paul Johnston’s brilliant series of crime novels set in this fascinating dystopia seemed to have come to an end in 2001; with an increased public interest in Scotland’s political future, this is a good moment for Quint’s reappearance. He has lost none of his acerbic irreverence, nor is he any more inclined to adjust his maverick behaviour to please the authorities. When the City Guardians set him to investigate a killing, Quint finds that the crime is connected with the forthcoming referendum about giving up independence and rejoining the new Scotland. This book contains some very interesting and thought-provoking material, as well as being a rattling good yarn.

Stealing People

By Robert Wilson

Orion 384pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Robert Wilson is a versatile writer whose books include both thrillers and convoluted, intellectual whodunnits – or a combination of the two, as in this book and his previous one, which both feature Charlie Boxer, an expert in recovering kidnap victims. Boxer’s private life is complicated. He works with his clever ex-wife, a detective inspector specialising in kidnapping cases. He lives with and loves a former client. He tries to protect his daughter, who keeps getting involved in his cases, and he has useful contacts all over the world to supply information or arms. In this episode, six children are kidnapped, each the child of one of the world’s richest people. Governments and armies are drawn into the investigation, but it is Boxer who takes the lead, conveniently helped by the police but unshackled by the rules they have to follow. The action is mostly in London, with some exotic excursions. The story reads a little as if it had been planned to include all possible selling points: mega-rich people, childbirth, sex (lesbian and otherwise), extreme violence and bodies galore. All the same, Stealing People is plausible and gripping.

The Cellar

By Minette Walters

Hammer 256pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Mr and Mrs Songoli stole Muna when she was eight years old. They brought her to England and kept her as a domestic and sexual slave. She has spent years being burned, raped, beaten and ignored. She works all day, sleeps on the cold floor of a locked, unlit cellar and has never been out of the house. But Muna is cleverer than her captors suppose. She has watched, listened and learned, so when one of the Songoli sons disappears, she seizes her chance to change her own life and take revenge on the family. Both are gradual processes, vividly described in this clever, macabre novel. Minette Walters’s portrayals of wickedness are convincing and appalling, unequalled in contemporary crime fiction.

The Savage Hour

By Elaine Proctor

Quercus 384pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is the story of the death of an old woman. Her life was spent as the matriarch and doctor on a farm in the South African veld; in recent months she has been suffering the indignities and diminishments of old age and dementia. Her sixteen-year-old granddaughter finds her body where it slipped into the river; the local policeman, gay and lonely, finds unanswered questions about her death and determines to answer them. This beautifully written book, peopled with rich characters and concerned with eternal questions about love, loyalty, living and dying, may be too leisurely to make it an excellent ‘crime novel’. But as a novel whose plot happens to be based on a criminal act, it is outstanding.

The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story

By Martin Edwards

HarperCollins 528pp £20 order from our bookshop

This masterly account of the crime fiction that was so successful between the wars – the period always known as the ‘Golden Age’ – is by an immensely knowledgeable enthusiast who has himself written much-praised crime novels. Edwards’s enthusiasm for traditional detective stories began when, aged eight, he discovered Agatha Christie. His determination to find information about the Detection Club’s most successful authors was sparked by his election in 2008 to that group, a once-secretive society to which the legendary greats belonged (to declare an interest, so do I). This scrupulously researched study is written with great verve and enthusiasm, so is a very easy read, despite its scholarly detail about both the books and their authors. It is full of fascinating titbits, interesting insights, hitherto unknown information and new ideas. In particular, Edwards shows that the Golden Age crime writers were far from the conventional conformists they seemed. In fact, their private lives were nothing like their respectable public images, for Sayers, Christie, Marsh and others all had something to hide. For any reader interested in the subject, this book is a real treat.

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