STYLISH and stylised Victorian thriller beginning after hours in fogbound London of 1864 when the last train of the night pulls into Baker Street underground station with the body of a young woman abandoned in a second-class carriage. Her stomach contents turn out to be mostly gin, with a dash of laudanum. But she's also been strangled. Who was she and whodunit? Investigation by whiskery Inspector Decimus Webb (better known as Boneshaker Bobby), who travels to the scene of the crime by velocipede and engages in nit-picking dialogue with junior officers. 'Burning the midnight oil, sir?' enquires a lickspittle sergeant. 'I think you will find it was gas, Watkins', replies his lord and master. Good detective work though, with powerful evocations of London lowlife and close attention paid to the bad habits and appalling smells of the metropolis's back streets. Clare Market, abutting the moderately posh Lincoln's Inn Fields, reeks of 1 'old vegetables, mingled with rotting meat, the pungent outpourings of local tripehouses, the delicate scent of pig's blood and cabbage leaves'. Suspicion eventually falls on a local do-gooder, Dr Harris, whose sexual needs are secretly met by inmates of the Holborn Refuge for Penitent Women. But the whited sepulchre goes uncrumbled until the very end, covering his tracks by socialising with local nobs, for whom he gives lavish dinners at his Doughty Street abode. A sample menu: soup; mackerel; fricasseed rabbit with oysters; boiled round of beef; roast quail and pigeon with bacon; followed by plum pudding and cheesecakes, and then baked apples and ice cream. More thriftily, the author stuffs himself on research, and consequently his scene-setting throws up images which emboss the page like goose bumps. It's a technique that works well for most of the time, but it can also freeze the narrative into a string of set pieces, vivid and imposing, but not all of them joined up and some lacking the vital spark. Unmistakeably though, he's a steadily improving writer (this is only his second novel) who demonstrates quite brilliantly what the genre can do. This is a rare and succulent piece of work. It's a sure thing that he'll go on to do better.
CLASSIC Italian paintings with inexplicable, perhaps sinister, additions are sent anonymously to the conservation workshop of Kate Holland in London. Who do they come from and what do they signify? Could they be connected with Kate's experiences forty years ago as one of the 'mud angels' - the army of young volunteers who attempted to rescue buildings, paintings and sculptures from the disastrous floods which engulfed Florence in 1966? No doubt about it. Kate detects a link between the pictures and their scrawled additions which may explain the apparent death of her friend Francesca in the wake of the floods. But, returning to Florence to pursue her enquiries, she becomes involved in a dark family intrigue involving betrayal, deception and a wicked plan to re-route an inheritance. Tortuous plotting, expert artwork, finely-figured atmospherics, with love frustrated and love finally found. More romance on offer here than in six months of the usual run of crime fiction. Intriguing stuff, especially the art detection. But a slow, slow burner. You need patience to resist giving it a shove up the easel.
SECOND episode in tragi-comic saga of melancholy Kiev journalist Viktor, author of obituaries which turn out to comprise a Mafia hit-list, and guardian of penguin Misha, saved from a bankrupt zoo, but shamefully betrayed by the fugitive Viktor who steals the plane seat intended to take Misha to penguin paradise in Antarctica. Death and the Pen'guin was the first instalment and a major success. Penguin Lost is about Viktor cleaning up his conscience and delivering his penguin, as promised, to the happy realms of snow and ice. A hopeful scenario but mostly comedy by numbers, some of it exceedingly grim, with Viktor working" in a Chechan incinerator where most of the perks comprise scraps of gold left over from cremated corpses. An almost happy ending, but the emblematic dream of Antarctica is still not fulfilled. A bit of a shortfall, you may think. Rather like the book itself, amiable though it is.
TRUE love like you've never quite seen it before between forty-sixish divorced actress Sheila Doyle and sometime male stripper, Cherokee-born Bobby Squared, who wheels and deals with gun-runners, Rastafarian hit men, murderous rednecks, and Cuban gangsters (the worst of whom blow up an airliner, killing 288 passengers, just to make a point). Also on hand, the kingpin of the South Florida blue movie scene and his star, a child-like Native American girl named Bimini who succinctly states the obvious: 'I was born for porn.' Cool, funny, exciting and unexpectedly touching, especially if you are turned on by loyalty, guts and crime at its wildest.
GUILT-RIDDEN guests at a stag weekend in a ghost-ridden mansion in deepest Cornwall realise, as the bodies mount, that vengeance for some crime is being wreaked by an unknown assassin. But what have they done that's so unforgiveable? The bad memories they dredge up - rape in Tunisia, betrayal in Bosnia - are, without doubt, blameworthy. But it's something older and, so far, undeclared that's provoking the bloodshed. A splendid assortment of victims and suspects including the morose now-and-again narrator, Matthew Moriarty, who is tweaked briefly out of his gloom by a dodgy shrink: 'Clinical depression suppresses the appetite. You're not depressed, you're sad, and sadness isn't a disease. The only thing it's a symptom of is life.' So that's all right then. The other good news is that McGowan's book is simultaneously original and traditional, with stylistic borrowings from writers as diverse as Simon Raven and Martin Amis, and enough energy and enthusiasm to keep a busy, often quite nasty plot on the boil. Gentle readers may find it all a touch distasteful. But once you've stepped on board you're there till the end of the ride.
THIRD in Ann Purser's increasingly addictive Middle England mysteries, with Lois Meade, comely boss of New Brooms (the house cleaners whose phone number you wish you could lay hands on), involving herself in a missing-person-maybe-murder case which is getting seriously in the way of good business. Spiky little interlude in which Lois's husband is sent poison pen letters accusing his ever-faithful spouse of rumpy-pumpy with the local Detective Inspector. Untrue, of course, which is not to say that the cop does not live in hope. Unique in this supposedly cosy seam of detective fiction for its focused and realistic view of Middle England manners and morals. Brisk, salutary, engaging.
IDLE and inept British journo Ollie Gibbon, a New York-based wagesl ave of Dorn baron Sir Derek Stanlev, is instructed by his boss (who mistakenly believes that Ollie is intimate with the Mob) to arrange the Mafia Wing of a rival proprietor. Energetic but ham-handed jesting ensues and hopes that Sir Stanley - a purveyor of top-shelf filth who may remind you of someone you know - will be done to a crisp are sadly unrealised. Clumsy stuff you can well afford to miss. The sort of book you want to land a killer punch and heartily dislike when it fails to deliver.