You know what you are getting with a novel featuring the dour John Rebus, who, although he has technically retired, is making his eighteenth appearance (or twenty-first if you include the books with his rival Detective Inspector Fox in the leading role). Fox and Rebus contribute to each other’s investigations and serve in the same force, its constituent parts as jealous and competitive as the partners in any forced marriage. Edinburgh is usually the scene of Rebus’s investigations and, despite retiring a couple of books back, his focus has changed very little. He still keeps his ears open to gossip about the local gangs and crime lords, and still runs rings round both criminals and colleagues. The stories consist mostly of dialogue, with little authorial comment or description. One cannot fail to admire Rankin’s ingenuity and originality, but I am not a member of Rebus’s great army of passionate fans. As a result, I found this latest addition to his life story, in which he investigates the connection between the murder of a banker’s wife forty years ago and an organised crime syndicate, only mildly interesting – not quite a thriller.
In 1941 the bombing of Clydebank killed or injured more than a thousand people and left many more homeless. Not long afterwards a very different kind of enemy aircraft came down in a Scottish field. Its single passenger stepped out unhurt. He was almost the last person anyone could have expected: Hitler’s second-in-command, Rudolf Hess. The reason for Hess’s bizarre flight to Scotland is a mystery that has never been satisfactorily explained, making it an excellent basis for a novel about the soldiers who found themselves responsible for keeping this dreadful man alive. I do not usually think much of fiction in which almost every character is male, but in this clever piece of historical reconstruction it seemed quite appropriate. This is an interesting and enjoyable novel.
When I was at Cambridge (Deborah O’Connor and I are in fact graduates of the same college), reading crime fiction, not to mention writing it, was regarded as an unsuitable occupation for an educated woman; when alumnae published books in the despised genre, these were tactfully ignored. I hope academic attitudes have changed, for this first novel is an accomplished piece of work. It is about a husband and wife who are united by misery. Her daughter from a previous relationship was murdered and his son simply disappeared one day. He is resigned to his loss, but she sees the missing boy around every corner. The story is told without dramatics, but there are moments when one wonders whether it reflects what people would really do. But then, who can tell? This good novel follows the contemporary fashion for ‘human story’ thrillers, in which ordinary people are confronted with unusual and testing circumstances. This one takes its readers on an interesting journey.
I much admired Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, but had never heard of The Enzo Files. Cast Iron is the sixth book in this series, which features a forensic expert called Enzo Macleod. He is an expat Scot who has lived in France for twenty years. He works at reviewing cold cases, having made a bet years ago that he could resolve the seven best-known unsolved murder cases using the latest scientific methods. Cast Iron begins with Macleod reluctantly agreeing to make one last attempt to find out who murdered the cherished daughter of a well-known judge. As he gathers evidence, Macleod finds that he and his family are in fact personally involved in the case and at risk. His own daughter and her boyfriend are abducted and attempts are made on Enzo’s life. This book has a very complicated plot, which it is easy for a reader to lose track of, but May’s prose is seductively enjoyable, as is his well-informed description of life and death in provincial France.
This book is less a drama than an atmospheric tale of good and evil, set in a kind of spoiled Eden – Venice’s lagoon in the last months of the Nazi occupation of Italy. By this time the German occupiers have murdered all the city’s Jews except for one girl, who is found – in fact, fished up – by a fisherman called Cenzo. Her name is Giulia. Having escaped the fate of the rest of her family, she is on the run. Earlier in life Cenzo was an air-force officer, until he refused to obey the order to bombard defenceless Abyssinians with mustard gas. Cenzo’s younger brother is dead; his older brother is a famous film star loyal to Mussolini. This is a mild thriller and a pleasing love story, beautifully written and cleverly conceived. But most memorable is neither the action nor the emotion, but the evocation of its eternally glorious setting, Venice’s fish-crowded lagoon and the stars above.
This short book packs a heavy punch. It tells the story of people whose shared experiences have often been described but seldom so vividly, even beautifully, as in this little gem of a novel. Brand is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. His family all died. Having managed to get to Jerusalem in 1946, he finds himself ‘an illegal’ there too, but is sheltered and recruited by an underground organisation. The British, who govern Palestine, are the enemy. Brand’s only friends are Jewish activists. Inevitably and reluctantly he is drawn into their world – a world evoked as vividly as if this were a lively miniature from a medieval book of hours created by a master of the craft. City of Secrets is one of the best novels I have read this year.
My other favourite crime books of 2016 were:
This book could accurately be categorised as a literary novel, a thriller, a whodunnit or a meditation about life and love. When a private plane falls out of the sky, one passenger, a middle-aged man, saves the life of a small boy and returns home to find himself famous, adulated, suspected and pestered. An exciting story told in perfectly apt prose, Before the Fall deserved to win prizes – but didn’t.
As it happens I am not a tremendous fan of Patricia Highsmith, but I do recognise her brilliance and greatly admired this cleverly imagined and knowledgeable portrait of the novelist in the mid-1960s, when she was living and writing in Suffolk.
Our world would look a little different if there really were as many female senior police officers as there are these days in crime fiction, where they probably outnumber their male counterparts. This beautifully written novel features Detective Inspector Grace Fisher, who is more of a loner than a team leader. It also brings in this year’s fashionable enthusiasm (at least in crime fiction) for bird-watching.