A Time to Lie by Simon Berthon; Exit by Belinda Bauer; The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean; The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell; A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion; The Survivors by Jane Harper; The Burning Girls by C J Tudor; Box 88 by Charles Cumming; The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

December 2020 Crime Round-up

  • Simon Berthon, 
  • Belinda Bauer, 
  • Will Dean, 
  • Laura Purcell, 
  • Una Mannion, 
  • Jane Harper, 
  • C J Tudor, 
  • Charles Cumming, 
  • Michael Connelly

My crime novels of the year:

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton (Viking) portrays a Somerset school in lockdown as terrorists threaten the staff and pupils. A brave examination of goodness in the face of cruelty.

Brixton Hill by Lottie Moggach (Corsair) is told from the points of view of a man on day release and a woman who befriends him, and provides a shocking picture of life in one of London’s largest prisons.

The Less Dead by Denise Mina (Harvill Secker) describes what happens when a pregnant doctor who was adopted as a child meets a member of her birth family and is plunged into a nightmare world of crime and pain.

Venetian Gothic by Philip Gwynne Jones (Constable) offers an alluring portrayal of life in Venice as the honorary British consul once again unravels local crimes.

Black Rain Falling by Jacob Ross (Sphere) takes us to the Caribbean in the company of ‘Digger’ Digson, a police officer fighting crime and corruption amid ravishing scenery.

To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi (MacLehose) is set in Arctic Sweden in the mid-19th century and features the hunt for a serial killer by a revivalist pastor and a young Sami man he has rescued from starvation.

A Time to Lie

By Simon Berthon

HQ 384pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Who would be a politician? Even in ordinary times, you can’t begin to put the country to rights until you’ve fought the opposition, antagonistic wings of your own party, enemies within your cabinet, ambitious and resentful special advisers and others. In Simon Berthon’s entertaining – and shocking – thriller, the prime minister is Robin Sandford, a Conservative with liberal instincts. A flatmate from long ago warns him that a scandal is about to break. When they lived together as recent graduates, partying as young men do, Sandford suffered blackouts. Now his old friend claims that during one forgotten episode, Sandford raped and killed a young Hungarian woman. Shadowy friends dealt with the body. A severed hand has recently been found on a building site, and it may belong to her. Under the cover of commissioning a warts-and-all biography, Sandford pays a sympathetic journalist to investigate. Well informed, full of good characters and interesting relationships, this is not only a clever thriller but also an indictment of the way the UK’s political system works.


By Belinda Bauer

Bantam 336pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Belinda Bauer can inject humour into the grimmest of human experiences. Here, a group known as the Exiteers offers its services to people enduring dreadful illnesses who want to die but do not want to die alone. Having signed a waiver and paid a fee they are visited by a pair of Exiteers, who will sit with them as they put on a mask and inhale nitrous oxide, which gives them a painless end without leaving post-mortem evidence of how they died. The lead Exiteer then removes the mask, canister and waiver and returns them to the organiser. Unfortunately, one Exiteer, Felix Pink, whose wife and only son are both dead, makes a mistake. The ramifications are both horrible and farcical. Bauer’s recurring character Calvin Bridge investigates the unfortunate death and Pink discovers things about himself that he never thought possible. Grim, funny and touching, and dealing with the topical subject of assisted dying, this is a wonderful novel.

The Last Thing to Burn

By Will Dean

Hodder & Stoughton 256pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Will Dean’s previous novels have all been set in Sweden. In The Last Thing to Burn, he shifts the action to East Anglia and a small, bleak farm owned by Lenn. Living there with him is a woman he calls Jane, the narrator, who has a badly damaged leg and foot. We meet her trying to run away from Lenn as fast as she can. Once he’s caught her and dragged her back to the primitive cottage she fled, we learn more about their lives together. He has strict rules and imposes the cruellest punishment for any infringement. He has cameras watching her every move while he is out working on the farm. We learn her real identity and the reason she’s there and why she cannot ask for help when a stranger comes to the door. The tension builds relentlessly. Lenn’s behaviour is terrible, yet Dean manages to arouse a faint flicker of sympathy even for him. That takes real skill.

The Shape of Darkness

By Laura Purcell

Raven 416pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

When Agnes was young, Bath was still glamorous and full of rich people taking the waters. Now that she’s in her fifties, the city has become unfashionable, down at heel and grimy. Her once profitable art of cutting silhouettes out of black paper has been overtaken by the new science of photography. Living in genteel poverty with her ageing mother and her late sister’s son, Agnes is tormented by memories of ‘The Accident’ and by an ambivalent relationship with her sister. Her only support is her brother-in-law, a doctor, who keeps reminding her how ill she was with pneumonia only two years ago. When people with whom she has had some contact start dying, she needs answers and turns to a pair of sinister spiritualists. As the narrative develops, the question of what exactly is going on becomes more urgent and it is hard to decide whether the brother-in-law is a gaslighting control freak or Agnes is simply pretty weird. This is a clever and well-researched novel with a good twist, and it shows the nightmare of life for single women of limited means in the 19th century.

A Crooked Tree

By Una Mannion

Faber & Faber 336pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Although there are plenty of crimes in this novel, it is less about them than the agonies of adolescence. Set in Pennsylvania in the 1980s, it is narrated by fifteen-year-old Libby Gallagher, the third of Faye’s five clever, hard-working children. Their Irish father is dead. Libby was the closest to him and hates her mother, but is nevertheless protective of her. The novel opens with Faye losing her temper with her fractious children and forcing twelve-year-old Ellen out of the car five miles from home, telling her she must walk back down an unlit road as darkness is falling. When disaster follows, it is Libby who tries to sort things out, with some unwanted help from a dangerous friend of her elder sister. Libby’s voice is convincing as she negotiates real dangers, the complexities of her own friendships and the realisation that even her difficult, unkind mother has feelings. Eventually, in spite of all Libby’s efforts to fix everything for everyone, the police are called. This is a painful, touching exploration of a teenager’s attempt to make sense of the world and its cruelties without the security every child should be able to expect from their parents.

The Survivors

By Jane Harper

Little, Brown 384pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Having given us the heat of a depressed rural Australian town in The Dry, exhausting rain in mountain forests in Force of Nature and the killing sun of the Outback in The Lost Man, Jane Harper now takes us to a coastal town in Tasmania. Kieran, his wife, Mia, and their baby, Audrey, have travelled to the town to help his mother pack up the house before moving his father, who has dementia, to a care home. All their relationships are complicated by the fact that some years ago Kieran’s elder brother drowned trying to rescue him during a terrible storm. On the same day, a young woman disappeared. When her backpack was found washed up a few miles away, the authorities assumed she too must have drowned, though her mother still refuses to believe it. Now another young woman is murdered on the beach and all the old resentments resurface. Harper is much too intelligent a writer to pit one guilty individual against an army of the innocent. Few of the characters have completely clean hands and the eventual solution is saddening.

The Burning Girls

By C J Tudor

Michael Joseph 400pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

C J Tudor tackles some big ideas in this pacey, spooky novel about a vicar and her daughter arriving in a new parish in the Sussex countryside. The tiny community is still traumatised by her predecessor’s untimely death and obsessed with the dreadful things that have been happening there to young girls ever since two were tortured and burned as Protestants during Mary I’s reign, five hundred years ago. Jack, the vicar, is certain that there is no such thing as evil, only individuals who choose to carry out evil deeds. But other people in the parish seem to think differently. Some see ghosts, which may or may not be the products of their own disordered imaginations. An anonymous package of exorcism tools is left on Jack’s doorstep. It is hard to believe that quite so many horrible people could live, or have lived, in the same few square miles of southeast England, but the novel rattles along, the revelations are neatly timed and the twists keep coming.

Box 88

By Charles Cumming

HarperCollins 496pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

From a school very like Eton to a glamorous villa in the south of France to a small locked room somewhere in Docklands, Box 88 explores the way personal and political ties are exploited by the world’s spy masters. Lachlan Kite (or Lockie) appears both as an experienced adult in the present day and as a naive but impressive teenager in his last year at school. Cumming makes him credible at both ages and neatly engages our sympathy for him, even though he is under suspicion from MI5. The plot is ingenious, the settings are intriguing and the pace is fast. Details about the training and tactics of spies offer an agreeable sense of being inside a closed world.

The Law of Innocence

By Michael Connelly

Orion 416pp £20 order from our bookshop

Michael Connelly is on top form here. Lawyer Mickey Haller is indicted for the murder of an ex-client, whose body has been found in the trunk of his car. With the help of a team of supporters, including his half-brother Harry Bosch, Haller prepares his defence from inside a high-security prison. Connelly arouses enough outrage at the injustice done to Haller to make the reader ignore everything else until the book is finished.

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