Philip Oakes

Crime Round Up Nov 2004

  • Ian Rankin, 
  • Bernhard Schlink, Walter Popp (as Thomas Richter), 
  • Cath Staincliffe, 
  • Andrew Martin, 
  • José Latour, 
  • Mark Timlin, 
  • Jeremy Cameron

Fleshmarket Close

By Ian Rankin

Orion 416pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

AUTUMNAL study of Rankin's top cop, Inspector John Rebus, ousted from his old office while it's being reorganised by the powers that be and unhappily lodged in neighbouring nick where he thinks wistfully about retirement - a prospect he resists because he knows it would delight his trendy new lords and masters if he just faded away. And he's certainly not leaving while the murder of an immigrant (who turns out to be a Kurdish journalist attempting to blow the whistle on local property racketeers) needs to be investigated. Reassuring to know that Rebus is still up to it while his life and the Edinburgh he's always known are in a state of flux. Background of nasty immigration hustles (council flats going to the highest bidder, BNP heavies looming at civic meetings, cockle pickers slaving for starvation wages, young flesh recruited for porn and profits from all of this spilling into terrorist war chests) while, secretly, old local villains are still about their business, plotting bigger and grimier crimes as they stew at home in their flagrant Jacuzzis. The book is haunted by a sense of time passing and chances for love and fulfilment going to waste. Rebus cuts down on his drinking, tries to eat sensibly, even strives to keep up appearances, wearing the same suit all week but taking it to the dry cleaners on Saturdays. Will any of it help? Happy endings seem further and further away. Rankin's great and growing skill throughout eighteen Rebus novels has been to align people and places so that public and private events interweave and interact. Nothing in his increasingly sombre fiction happens in a vacuum. Fleshmarket Close is ironic, exciting and immediate. The plot is resourceful characterisation sharp; humour as unexpected as a rug jerked from under your feet. Despite the wear and tear, Rebus has never looked in better shape; a long, long way, I'd have thought, from retirement.

Self's Punishment: A Mystery

By Bernhard Schlink, Walter Popp (as Thomas Richter)

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 256pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

GERHARD Self - 68-year-old German private eye, haunted by memories of misguided prewar career as Nazi state prosecutor - takes on job for big chemical company fearful that some hacker is tampering with their computer system. Maybe the renegade's just having fun. A regular order for 100 monkeys needed for research is upped to 100,000. All accounts with numbers including '13' are deleted. No serous harm done yet, but things could get worse. Run-of-the-mill investigation which turns nasty when there's a suicide and a suspect dies in a car crash. Self is plagued by echoes of his old Nazi job in which innocent men were unscrupulously hounded. He takes fresh stock of himself and pushes the investigation deeper. Excellent, distinctly different study of crime and conscience. Finely drawn hero in Self, once married to 'a beautiful blonde Nazi until she became a nice round Economic Miracle German', now living alone with pampered cat Turbo, collecting Madonna albums, smoking too many Sweet Afion cigarettes and instructing barmen wherever he goes how to mix his favourite cocktail, an Aviateur (equal measures of Campari, grapefruit juice and champagne). A bestseller in Germany in 1987, translated here by Rebecca Morrison into an efficient Euro-novel in which affluence and unease come to a fine and readable head.

Blue Murder: Cry Me A River

By Cath Staincliffe

Allison & Busby 251pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

TELLY-COMPLEXIONED Police investigation with Janine Lewis, Manchester's first female Detective Chief Inspector (parted from her faithless spouse, but pregnant again after their final fling), digging into puzzling murder case in which the deputy head of local high school is discovered dead in the mud of his allotment with his stomach slashed open. The prime suspect is brought in, but eyewitnesses are of no help. Is everyone, including the dead man's frosty widow, telling the whole truth and nothing but? Don't count on it. Entertaining enough, but a touch contrived and clearly drawn from the same imaginative well as Staincliffe's successful current TV series. Short chapters, composed in shorter takes. You feel yourself waiting for the commercial break or the next camera angle. A perfectly able product, but not a patch on Staincliffe's often anguished Sal Wrenny series.

The Blackpool Highflyer

By Andrew Martin

Faber & Faber 336pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

EXPERT and ingratiating period piece (a follow-up to Martin's The Necropolis Railway) in which railwayman Jim Stringer, promoted to fireman since the first book and yearning to become a train driver, finds himself in Yorkshire working on excursion trains taking trippers to holiday towns - especially Blackpool - in the North-West. It is the summer of 1905 and there's a heatwave. Smoke streams up from the mill chimneys 'fast but steady, as if from the mouths of men lying on their backs and smoking cigars'. The sea beckons, but as the Highflyer (at that time the fastest locomotive running in Britain) nears the coast it is derailed by a millstone dumped on the line. A woman is injured in the crash and Stringer, who gives her the wrong first-aid, blames himself when she dies, swearing to compensate her orphaned son by finding the wrecker who did the damage. Strange encounters with anarchists, entrepreneurs and crusty capitalists as Stringer (newly married to the upwardly mobile Lydia) tries to calm his conscience and stop the saboteur. The period lovingly detailed ('Oysters, bread and butter, bottle of Bass' for lunch; 'Condiments ha'penny extra') but blissfully free of that old Hovis-style nostalgia. Terrific stuff, especially for train buffs; a ride to delight each and every discerning reader.

Havana World Series

By José Latour

Orion 336pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

NERVY, nail-biting tale of near-perfect plan devised by five small-time crooks recruited by the Mafia to steal half a million dollars in gambling money wagered on the last game in the 1958 baseball World Series in pre-Castro Cuba. A great idea with one major snag. The main collecting office where the heist is to take place is run by crime czar Meyer Lansky, who virtually owns the country. Things go wrong and thieves fall out, but the booty is safely stashed. Contreras, the chief thief's favoured hiding place, is a funeral vault in the Cemeterio de Colon where he's hidden guns and dynamite in the past.  Nowadays it was pretty risky to visit the cemetery: police used it as a secret dumping ground for murdered revolutionaries.' The police are also dab hands at torture. There's an especially graphic passage describing the extraction of fingernails which you should think twice before reading. But it's the detail in all parts of the book which makes it so gripping, so painfully authentic. It's sometimes reminiscent of W R Burnett's The Asphalt jungle, both in the planning of the heist and the sympathy shown by both authors for hapless thieves. Nary a scruple as far as law 'n' order is concerned, but wholly and rightly on the side of the revolution about to explode.

Answers From The Grave

By Mark Timlin

The Do-Not Press 560pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

FORTY years of turbulent Sarf London crime, love and disorder given epic shape and substance by a remembrancer who's been there, lived the life, and bought the T-shirt. Marvellously meaty and anecdotal, with villains you almost recognise and capers you think you might actually recall from not-so-long-ago headlines. Fact nourishes fiction all the way, giving melodrama the weight of history. Timlin's south-of-the-river wannabes - sharp-suited Jimmy, John and Billy - start out just as the Sixties are about to swing, peddling protection and pills (especially Mandrax, with the alluring promise: 'Mandy makes you randy') and making major forays into armed robbery. Billy changes sides, joins the law and is shot dead by Jimmy. Twenty years on, his son, the still-vengeful Mark (a career criminal secretly in love with Jimmy's daughter), aborts a £25 million diamond heist by using it as the occasion to dispose of his father's killer. Narrative rough enough to shed splinters as you turn the page, but genuinely powerful with superb set pieces: a crime society do featuring a battle between bare-knuckled fighter and death-dealing pit bull; Docklands carnage as the diamond heist goes pear-shaped. Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll from start to finish. Immoral or amoral, you could say, but Timlin holds to a firm line on gangland ethics. As one of his hard men - killer, drug dealer, moralist - declares, 'To live outside the law you've got to be honest.' It's a maxim that leapfrogs simple casuistry and it beats at the heart of the book. I've not warmed to much of Timlin's work in the past, but Answers From the Grave is the real thing: thrilling, memory-jogging, so enjoyable it's probably illegal.

Wider Than Walthamstow

By Jeremy Cameron

Slow Books 250pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

RETURN of Nicky Burkett, Walthamstow wide boy, living on benefits and at a loose end since girlfriend (the delicious Noreen) has been denying him his conjugals, but suddenly back in the plot when a Lithuanian asylum seeker in front of him in the dole queue is shot dead and it seems likely that a note he was holding when he was gunned down could point to the whereabouts of substantial loot stashed away in snowbound Vilnius. Funny, frisky and inventive, and told for the most part in Cameron's do-it-yourself Mockney. Don't mistake it for authentic patois, but it does speed the story along. 'John is brown bread, lady', says Nicky, telling a Lithuanian widow of her husband's demise. The same sort of briskness would put the spur to a lot of regulation heavyweight Britcrime

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