Crime Round Up Oct 2004

  • Boris Johnson, 
  • Agatha Christie, 
  • Carl Hiaasen, 
  • Ruth Rendell, 
  • Catherine Sampson, 
  • Louis Bayard, 
  • Patricia Cornwell, 
  • Joseph Finder

Seventy-Two Virgins: A Comedy of Errors

By Boris Johnson

HarperCollins 326pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

ULTRA-BREEZY comedy thriller in which bumbling MP Roger Barlow, fearful of imminent tabloid expos6 of his sexual misdemeanours, blunders into terrorist plot, with suicide bombers grabbing US President - due to deliver key speech to VIPs in Westminster Hall - and threatening to blow him up unless Guantanamo Bay prisoners are released from US custody and given fair trial on neutral ground. Thrills muffled by relentless jokiness and inordinate length of book. Barlow's endearing, though - displaying his liberalism in a letter to a constitituent lobbying for same sex marriage, in which he writes, 'Good on yer, matey, go right ahead. Frankly I don't see why the state should object to a union between three men and a dog.' Politically a bit of a weathercock, with Barlow wanting it all ways, and only the terrorists (promised that the seventy-two virgins of the title await them in paradise if they fulfil their destiny) consistently scary and comic from start to finish. Glimpses of the Westminster circus giddying enough to confirm your worst suspicions about governmental goings on. But uncommonly genial and eager to please. Rather like being licked into shape by a great lolloping labrador.

Seven Deadly Sins

By Agatha Christie

HarperCollins 1158pp £25 order from our bookshop

AGATHA Christie died in 1976, but the resurrectionists never rest. Here is a compilation of seven Christie novels - The ABC Murders, A Murder is Announced, Sparkling Cyanide, Evil Under the Sun, At Bertram's Hotel, Endless Night and Five Little Pigs - which, suggests Mathew Prichard (Christie's grandson), who introduces the book, represent the motives of Pride, Envy, Sloth, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, and Wrath. A classy volume but, for an anthology of reprints, expensive too. Is Greed the same as Avarice, and is it a sin that the publishers would do well to renounce?

Skinny Dip

By Carl Hiaasen

Bantam Press 357pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

BORIS Johnson’s hero and, presumably, model ('One of the greatest living practitioners of the novel', writes BJ in the Daily Telegraph) with another masterclass in comic crime. Irresistible, brilliant opening with sleazy, priapic Chaz Perron ('The biggest challenge would be engaging him in at least one intimate conversation that did not concern the peerless durability of his erection') attempting to murder his sparky young wife Joey at dead of night by tipping her from the deck of luxury cruise liner into the icy Atlantic. What he forgets, fortunately, is that Joey was once a swimming champ. Hauled from the deep by ex-cop Mick Stranahan, she plots revenge on her horrible husband, haunting his schemes and dreams, devastating his sex life, driving him mad while she gets even. The timing is perfect as Chaz, the worst marine scientist in Florida, is fearful that his deal with a local mega-crook to make a fortune by polluting the Everglades (instead of rinsing them clean) seems about to come to light. Wonderfully convoluted plot in which snags pile onto glitches and Chaz lurches helplessly towards a fate worse than death. Not quite vintage Hiaasen and notable for the fact that the farce is frequently less funny than the throwaways delivered, sotto voce, without any gaudy build up. A lawyer is described as 'inept in all aspects of the profession except self-promotion'. A girl makes an appearance wearing 'pearl-coloured heels, a sleeveless white top and a navy skirt so short she could have caught the croup'. What's precious and inimitable about Hiaasen is his unique, uncluttered point of view. What he sees may be appalling, anarchic, amazing. What matters most, though, is that he sees it as it really is.

13 Steps Down

By Ruth Rendell

Hutchinson 314pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

CREEPY relentless study of fixation which grips oddly-named Mix Cellini (star employee of Fiterama, a firm peddling gym equipment), who adores the beautiful model Nerissa, but is even more devoted to the memory of John Reginald Halliday Christie, the murderer of Rillington Place, whose killing ground lies close to Cellini's own Notting Hill flat. He fantasises that, years ago, Christie (there should be a blue plaque in his memory, thinks Mix) may have visited his utterly genteel landlady, Gwendolen Chawcer, perhaps to terminate a pregnancy. It was, he reasons, Christie's favourite method of getting close to a victim, wrong, of course. Gwendolen remains a chaste, if ancient, virgin, still true to the dashing young doctor she loved in her youth (who fled the scene when her father disapproved). Fact and fancy merge disastrously when Mix (vainly pursuing Nerissa) murders a girl he's settled on for sex and plants her body beneath the floorboards. The weather turns hot and things, you could say, start to hum. At the same time Mix is convinced that he's seen Christie's ghost. Rendell coaxes her horrors along so seductively that all kinds of nastiness seem not only possible, but inevitable. Her plotting is precise; her characterisation builds from the bone; her feeling for ambience and atmosphere is profound and unsettling. She has been producing superb thrillers for forty years and this is one of her darkest and best.

Falling Off Air

By Catherine Sampson

Macmillan 294pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

EXCELLENT energetic first novel which opens with Robin Ballantine, unmarried and abandoned mother of twins, wearily putting children to bed when her celebrity neighbour - MP and social activist - plunges to her death from upstairs window. Did she fall or was she pushed? Problems every which way. The police seem to doubt Robin's story. The Beeb, from whom she's taking maternity leave, don't want her back as a documentary producer. What's worse it seems that her absentee lover, a star TV interviewer, was unexpectedly close to the dead woman and had given her details of Robin's private affairs. Harrowing, do-it-yourself investigation by reluctant witness, desperate to salvage her life and reputation. Persuasive and well drawn, with just a touch too much plot and a strong, silent cop like everyone's TV dreamboat. At its considerable best when mapping Corporation bitchery and rivalries. More drama there than in any whodunit.

 

Mr Timothy

By Louis Bayard

John Murray 384pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

THE crutch has gone from the chimney corner. Tiny Tim Cratchit has grown up (educated and bankrolled by the philanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge) and spends his time on the seedy side of London, much of it in a brothel (where he is teaching the madame to read) and pursuing his friendship with the bibulous Captain Gully, who earns a bottle and a bun by dredging bodies from the Thames. Two of the corpses are those of young girls, each of them branded with the letter G and a pair of staring eyes. A third girl turns up, similarly scarred, but mercifully alive. What's happening, it seems, is some kind of vile sexual traffic and - valiantly assisted by a young street singer named Colin the Melodious - Tim sets out to bring it to an end. Dashing stuff, this, and unexpectedly wish1 as Tim converses sadly with his dead father - the muffler-swathed Bob - in an attempt to understand and somehow repair their damaged relationship. Gaudily characterised, with a wicked Milord doing most of the damage, and a retinue of bigspending sex addicts and their ever-ready trulls. Vigorous, well imagined and thoroughly entertaining. Louis Bayard can write up a storm.

Trace

By Patricia Cornwell

Little, Brown 405pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

WELCOME change of pace, style and content for Patricia Cornwell, given over in recent outings to bloody and absurd melodrama. No lack of excitement here, but real subtlety and feeling exercised in story of Dr Kay Scarpetta, ace pathologist, lawyer, etc, temporarily estranged from much loved lesbian niece Lucy, ex-FBI, now boss of international PI firm The Last Resort, whose latest recruit, a glitzy sometime actress (adored by Lucy), is attacked by unknown assailant while staying in her employer's Florida mansion. Scarpetta's away in Virginia, where she's been summoned at the request of her maladroit successor as chief medical examiner, Dr Joel Marcus, to investigate the mysterious death of teenager Gilly Paulsson. It's a gloomy scene. The old morgue is being demolished. The air is thick with distrust. But Scarpetta has her old aide Marino to lend necessary muscle. and answers follow hot on the heels of questions. What's really odd is that, out of the blue, there appears to be a connection between the attack on Lucv's lesbian recruit and the death of the Virginia teenager. Ingeniously plotted and a marvellously snug piece of crime engineering. Not much violence except as part of the sex games in which, to his huge embarrassment, Marino is involved. A maybe-happy ending for Scarpetta and her lover, the impossibly handsome Wesley Benton; general satisfaction for any reader ready to welcome Patricia Cornwell's return to form.

Paranoia

By Joseph Finder

Orion 432pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

AMBITIOUS young office wannabe Adam Cassidy, who improperly spends $78,000 of company money, is covertly planted in competing firm to snoop on their development plans or face prosecution for federal crime with certain jail time ahead. How can he save his neck, his conscience, his career? Very slick and garnished with big business equipment and brand names (Miata, PC Prox, identifix fingerprint scanner, Ultra Dense Blade Server, proximity detector, etc), but oddly sentimental (the female interest shows up wearing a Fred Perry shirt displaying 'her bodacious ta-tas'). One of those books which constantly seems about to take off, but which sprints grimly from start to finish, devoid of any real energy or interest.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter