Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay; The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham; The Silent and the Damned by Robert Wilson; Old Boys by Charles McCarry - review by Philip Oakes

Philip Oakes

Crime Round Up Sept 2004

  • Kate Atkinson, 
  • Jeff Lindsay, 
  • Mark Billingham, 
  • Robert Wilson, 
  • Charles McCarry

Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson

Doubleday 304pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Welcome to the most original, engaging private eye to perk up British crime fiction for many a year: disenchanted Jackson Brodie – ex-Cambridgeshire constabulary; fond father, separated from snide, socially thrusting wife; born-again smoker after fifteen years' abstention; addicted to his vintage Alfa Romeo ('You bought a policeman's car then', sneers his snotty spouse); and nearing that dangerous age, a mere forty-five, 'when men suddenly notice they're going to die eventually, inevitably and there isn't a damn thing they can do about it'. What keeps him going is an aching, battered belief that 'his job is to help people be good rather than punish them for being bad'. Credentials sympathetically established by new-to-crime author Kate Atkinson, who also creates a solid, many-layered milieu through which Brodie burrows in aid of his clients. There's the grieving father of a lovely girl unaccountably murdered by an unknown assailant who invades her office with a knife which 'scythes through her carotid artery, sending a great plume of her precious, beautiful blood across the room'. There are the surviving members of a strange, dysfunctional family still determined to find their baby sister, who they believe was kidnapped years ago while sleeping outdoors during a heat wave. There's the jealous husband convinced that his wife is conducting an affair. Brodie's eager to help them all. And behind the investigations lies his own tragic family history, involving rape, murder and suicide, which explains and intensifies his commitment to reaching a necessary closure. Case Histories is light years away from your average crime novel. It is not concerned only with whodunit (although it demands answers to awkward questions); it balances resolution against relief and both have value. Brodie himself is a character still in the making, still open to suggestion. He thinks he might like to live in France and grow vegetables. He is in lust with his dentist Sharon, who studies him enigmatically over her surgical mask. He always carries a packet of tissues because 'half the people he met seemed to end up in tears'. He is clumsy, vulnerable and irrevocably human. He will never be hard-boiled. Nor is the book; instead it is civilised, funny, life-affirming and hugely enjoyable. I can't recall reading crime fiction quite like this before – honest, ironic, and cheerfully unselfconscious. I urge you to share my surprise and delight.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

By Jeff Lindsay

Orion 304pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

Serial killer Dexter Morgan, in perfect job as blood-spatter analyst for the Miami police, justifies his murderous ways by killing only the bad guys. Thirty-six people dead and gone so far and all the evidence disposed of. Too bad when a rival assassin who seems to have borrowed Dexter's murder methods invades his home turf. What's to be done, especially when his sister, a Miami cop, is working the case? A sleek black comedy which should be funnier than it is, although seeing Dexter at home, chilling out to the music of Philip Glass (it 'stirred the emptiness inside me') hints at the good jokes waiting in the ice box.

The Burning Girl

By Mark Billingham

Little, Brown 352pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Gang wars in grotty North London between rival Irish and Turkish mobs creaming the profits off sales of video porn, with DI Tom Thorn – surely the most melancholy cop on the beat – trying to bring an end to the hostilities. Grisly complications when an old case in which a schoolgirl (mistaken for the real target) was drenched in lighter fluid and turned into a human torch now seems to have inspired a copycat killer with designs on the girl who escaped first time round. A grimly realistic setting in which warfare is waged with a positively medieval gusto and detectives, whose job it is to keep the peace, spend half the time picking off the competition on their own side. Crime fiction which earns your anxiety and your respect. Billingham gets better and blacker with each book.

The Silent and the Damned

By Robert Wilson

HarperCollins 358pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Maxim for our time: 'Boredom is the enemy of our humanity. It is why we get up and kill.' It is coined by one of the murderously bad guys who throng Robert Wilson's Seville-based thriller featuring Inspector Javier Falcón, a detective with psychological hang-ups to rival any of those infesting the villains he's paid to pursue. In any case he doubts the logic of the maxim-maker: 'The purity of his intellect was always getting infected by the bacteria of emotion.' Fooling Falcón, you conclude, isn't easy. In the midst of a heat wave which is laying the city low he investigates what appears to be a suicide pact (wife suffocated beneath her pillow, husband dead of muriatic acid poisoning) but turns out to be an exceptionally cold-blooded murder plot. This is followed by two genuine suicides and revelations which show the Russian mafia to be running most of the city's building projects as well as its booming vice business, which includes everything from prostitution (with enslaved girls imported from Europe) to paedophilia. Wilson's detective hero casts a cold eye on the passing show and shrug at 'the fraudulence on display'. Wilson, too, appears to keep his distance, with Falcón paranoid and suspicious ('You're happy. You've had some sex', remarks a colleague incredulously when our hero risks a smile one morning). In fact, despite the soaring temperatures in the streets, the novel has an icy heart and, eventually, the chill reaches the reader. Its plotting is persuasive, its characterisation shrewd (there's a brilliantly drawn American photographer, sexually too hot for her own skin), but I had the feeling that Wilson increasingly found it a rebarbative book to write and I (while hanging on to my admiration for the author) found it a difficult book to read.

Old Boys

By Charles McCarry

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 476pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Master class in espionage fiction conducted by one of the deftest hands in the business, who (frustratingly and unaccountably) has been silent for the past ten years. Good to have him back with all parts in fine working order. Stage-setting prologue with dinner between veteran CIA hands, the narrator Horace Hubbard and his cousin, Paul Christopher (survivor of ten years' solitary in a Chinese jail). Christopher is now planning to disappear again, this time in search of his mother: the iconic Lori Christopher, who was kidnapped during the Second World War by Hitler's henchman Richard Heydrich, and is now – if still alive – ninety years old. Christopher disappears on cue and months later what purport to be his ashes are delivered to the American consulate in Beijing. But is he really dead? Not likely says Horace, who disinters a will hidden by the missing Christopher with a classic American painting by Edward Hicks ('the dopey one with cows') the sale of which will finance the eking search for Lori and cover any other costs that the expedition may run up. The search team (all old boys from the CIA) sign on and the chase begins. The narrative moves from China to Brazil, from Rome to Tel Aviv, from Budapest to Moscow; and our heroes are dogged by American intelligence and Muslim terrorists all the way, with a scroll from 36 AD, salvaged from an ancient wreck, adding a new spin both to the New Testament story it chronicles and the plot's convolutions. McCarry tells his tale with relish, investing it with elegance, thrills, romance, and unflagging invention (eg: a fugitive terrorist who is an ardent falconer is tracked down by following the migratory path of the houbara bustard, the favourite prey of his Saker falcon). I can't recall a book which delivers such riches - including a perfect ending - with such consummate cool. This is a novel which makes you want to climb inside it and pull the pages over your head. Absolute bliss!

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