‘The UN’s New York headquarters was a cross between the court of the Borgias and the last days of the Roman Empire … thirty-eight floors of intrigue, conspiracy, backbiting, and betrayal.’ This fascinating novel is set sometime in the near future, when the USA has a female president who is about to travel to Istanbul for ‘the most ambitious diplomatic project in history’: a conference between the world’s superpowers ‘to negotiate final peace agreements for Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt’. Yael Azoulay is a senior member of staff working in the United Nations’ New York headquarters, but the secretary general, her patron, is absent and his stand-in wants to get rid of her. She is moved sideways to a new non-job, but manages to get herself to Turkey while the president is there and to play an important part in the proceedings. This is a very long book, densely written, with many passages of exposition and explanation, and the second in a series featuring Yael as the heroine. I was at a disadvantage, not having read the earlier episode, but in so far as I could follow what was going on, I very much enjoyed this one.
Cambodia in August, when it rains all day every day; where citizens are recovering from the malign regime of the Khmer Rouge, but there are still many no-go areas of conversation and many names that are left unmentioned. Commandant Serge Morel of the Paris police is as French as they come, but he takes his holidays in the country that his parents left as refugees. This holiday is interrupted when he is commanded by his boss back in France, and begged by his police colleague in Cambodia, to help solve the murder of the charismatic head of an aid organisation. The detection is competent and the way of doing it agreeably old-fashioned, relying on interviews, clues and careful analysis of the evidence without the benefit of forensic science, since Cambodia has no such resources. This is a neat and conventional murder mystery, rendered fascinating by its vivid description of life in contemporary Phnom Penh.
In his fourth adventure, the Gibraltarian lawyer Spike Sanguinetti goes on holiday to one of the world’s most beautiful (and my own favourite) places – the corner of northeast Corfu sometimes called ‘South Kensington on Sea’. The British have competition these days, in particular from Russian visitors, and it is not as easy as it used to be for rich holiday-makers to ignore the difficult circumstances in which the locals, mostly Greeks but also Albanians from across the narrow strait, are living. Sanguinetti and his companions – his father, his partner in a two-man law firm and his about-to-be girlfriend – get involved when the son of their host’s Albanian housekeeper is accused of murder. The story is solidly credible, but it is the setting that is most enjoyable, vividly realised and full of reminders that the olive-clad land and the translucent sea have been the scene of battles and crimes, and will be again.
Underlying the story in this interesting novel is a portrait, not so much of the individual characters, though they are carefully and convincingly described, as of a place. Jersey and the other Channel Islands may show visitors the smiling, sunny face of a holiday playground, but the gorgeous cliffs and beaches conceal the ostentatious lifestyles and petty motivations of the islands’ permanent residents, for their lives do not match the setting, or did not in 1987, when this tale of greed, pretension and hypocrisy is set. Smith spent his teenage years on Jersey. He became a comedian and satirical writer (working on The Thick of It and Veep, among other programmes), but his first novel is a joke-free drama about a missing schoolboy, one of his teachers who is an over-conscientious mainlander and perpetual outsider, and various islanders whose inward-looking lives are built on pretence, secrets and lies.
Yet another island story. Sam and her family live in the remains of a 20th-century commune in south London. Aged eighteen, she begins to realise that her father, Jim, an undercover policeman with a drink problem, is not quite what he seems, nor quite what he says he is. So when he offers to take her on holiday to the Orkneys, she goes along, intending to keep an eye on him. But he keeps disappearing on secretive errands without her. She is baffled: what can he be up to? These northern islands are a suitable setting for suggesting uncanny happenings and for undefined feelings of not being alone, or of being watched. But Sam’s answers don’t come until she gets back home. Orkney Twilight is a very well-written first novel, with an original and pleasant portrait of the relationship between father and daughter and of the Orkneys. It’s a good and absorbing read, though perhaps even more interesting as a family portrait than a thriller.
Catherine and Robert are an affectionate couple with successful careers and a son in his early twenties. Stephen and Nancy also had a son, Jonathan. But Nancy and Jonathan are both dead and Stephen believes that Catherine is to blame. He finds an ingenious way to punish her, by self-publishing a roman à clef in which Catherine is unmistakable as the seducer of innocent Jonathan. Stephen then delivers copies of this book to Catherine’s husband and son. Both seem curiously ready to believe the worst of her, as are any other readers the book finds, and it is only after Catherine’s lovely life is in ruins that she admits to what really happened between her and the late Jonathan. This is an ingenious and involving tale and a very successful first novel.
In his twenty-fifth appearance, Edinburgh cop – and in the last few books chief constable – Bob Skinner turns into a kind of private eye. Skinner disapproves of the amalgamation of all Scottish police forces into Police Scotland, and does not want the job of leading the new organisation. He goes to Spain to think about his future. When he decides to help a Spanish tycoon friend hunt for his missing business partner, Skinner has the advantage of being revered by senior officials and police officers in every corner of Europe, who happily supply any secret information or practical assistance that he wants. At the same time, his daughter does any necessary fact-finding for him and wherever he goes there is some contact who owes him a favour. This unusual private detective does what is asked of him, but it’s something of a comedown – for him and for readers.
Like other famous literary figures, Gore Vidal produced pseudonymous potboilers, some as Edgar Box and this one as Cameron Kay. First published in 1953, it is an adventure set in Egypt during King Faisal’s reign. There are seductive female spies, mysterious happenings, pantomimic villains and a sprinkling of superstition in this beautifully written but quite silly novel.
Another visit to Detective Inspector Marjory Fleming’s patch of southwest Scotland, this time to follow a group of young hedonists who broke up when one of them died of an overdose. Several years later the scattered members return to their old patch, only to find more death and destruction. A reliably enjoyable read.