My crime novels of the year
Phosphate Rocks by Fiona Erskine (Sandstone Press). A fascinating mixture of detection, science and memoir by chemical engineer Fiona Erskine. Beautifully written and clever.
Edge of the Grave by Robbie Morrison (Macmillan). This impressive first novel provides a colourful, moving and shocking portrayal of crime and class, deprivation and great wealth in Glasgow between the wars.
Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka (Harvill Secker). A highly original take on the locked-room mystery: twisty, funny and horrifying in its examination of organised crime, bullying, bad luck and psychopathy.
The Waiter by Ajay Chowdhury (Harvill Secker). A charming account of a disgraced Kolkata detective moving to London to work as a waiter for his uncle and coming face to face with a murder.
The Hunt and the Kill by Holly Watt (Raven). A fast-moving thriller with plenty of heart and guts, featuring investigative journalist Casey Benedict, by a writer who knows her stuff.
Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass (Viper). Skilfully written and thoroughly researched, this novel deals with treachery in the civil service, opium and fears of revolution in late 18th-century London.
The Russian Doll by Marina Palmer (Hodder & Stoughton). An entertaining battle of wits between a poor and clever young English woman and a brilliantly manipulative Russian oligarch.
The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker (Hutchinson). An agonising story of a child who killed, went to prison and has been released on parole to face many different threats. Tucker’s compassion and understanding of the situation of distressed children make this novel important.
At first sight, this is another story of a vulnerable woman and her gaslighting husband, but Megan isn’t nearly as needy as her husband thinks and she knows all about mind games, having played them with her twin sister, Leah, since they were very young. The twins’ family had sad secrets to hide until Leah went public, making a fortune from her book about them and going on to become a rich influencer while keeping well away from her sister. Megan, meanwhile, has continued working as an accountant to pay her mortgage and fund her husband’s shopping habits. The stasis is broken when she sees sexy pictures of Leah on her husband’s phone and decides to confront her, which leads ultimately to a trial for murder. The novel addresses real sibling issues as it speeds along, but it is a pity that Bonner decided to narrate the penultimate section from the point of view of the defence lawyer without knowing enough about the language or procedures of the English legal system.
Writing a crime novel or thriller seems to be the default job for retired politicians. Some are better at it than others. Hillary Clinton has had the wit to join forces with an established and successful writer, and the collaboration works. Louise Penny is the author of a series of crime novels set in Quebec featuring the almost saintly Armand Gamache, who is both virtuous and a brilliant detective. He has a small part to play in this novel. But the main character is Ellen Adams, the US secretary of state, who has to fight not only her president and many of his staff but also his useful idiot of a predecessor, as well as terrorists and traitors across the world as bombs explode in London and Paris and everyone assumes that the United States will be the next target. This is a well-constructed novel, with literary flourishes (some of the clues derive from John Donne’s ‘A Hymn to God the Father’), a nod to Aaron Sorkin’s wonderful script for A Few Good Men (‘We can handle the truth’), emotional intelligence and hints of humour. But best of all is the portrait of an effective female politician who is not afraid to make her enemies underestimate her by appearing before them as ‘a dishevelled, frumpy, middle-aged woman’.
The death of John le Carré in December 2020 deprived us of one of the greatest exponents of spy fiction. His estate has offered some comfort with the posthumous publication of Silverview, even if it’s slight in comparison with the great novels that make up the Quest for Karla series and, in spite of references to the horrors of the Balkan and Middle Eastern wars, less hard-hitting than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which made his name. The novel concerns an intelligence leak and the hunt for the leaker. In characteristic le Carré style, it appears to deal with a character only peripheral to the main action, in this case a naive bookseller called Julian Lawndsley, who has recently set up shop on the Norfolk coast. For those who love le Carré’s work, there are many familiar pleasures, such as theatrically arch dialogue, a character whose hair is brushed into little horns, an old married couple who offer antiphonal snippets of information to the investigator, a gentle-seeming betrayed husband heroically pretending to the world and himself that his wife will return, and quiet, sad, brave intelligence officers, who may regret many things about their service and government but will not rest until they have done everything they can to defend both. Among the best aspects of the novel is the description of the dying superspy Dorothy. All in all, Silverview offers a delightful farewell.
Anne Glenconner’s autobiography, Lady in Waiting (2019), spent thirty weeks on the bestseller list. She explains in an afterword to A Haunting at Holkham that there wasn’t room there for everything she wanted to write about her wartime experiences at her family’s Norfolk estate and so she has incorporated many of her memories in this, her second crime novel. She and her family feature under their own names but the villains and other characters are invented. The plot deals with a sadistic governess, who is based on a real woman, the theft (fictional) of a magnificent diamond necklace and at least one murder. It works well, but it is the picture of life at Holkham and the training of an aristocrat to take on anything that may be thrown at her that makes this novel stand out.
Nicola White’s novel takes us back to Ireland in the 1980s, a time of extreme homophobia. Gina Considine has been warned by her boss in the Gardai that she is known to share a house with a woman ‘in a carnal manner’ and must watch herself. Complicating her already tricky private life is her part in investigating the murder of an off-duty colleague, who has been killed at a notorious cruising spot. This is a humane and intelligent story mixing detective work with social history.
This is the third part of Trevor Wood’s effective series about rough sleepers in Newcastle. Sherlock Homeless, aka Jimmy, is now off the streets and working in a hostel. His probation officer warns him against new investigations because any infringement of the law would have him sent back to prison. But when a group of vigilantes starts beating up homeless men, including Jimmy’s old friend Gadge, he cannot resist. Facing down one of the worst criminals in the area, a savage replacement probation officer and a variety of other convincingly dangerous characters, Jimmy won’t give up. On the way we learn more of the sad back stories of Jimmy, Gadge and their young friend Deano. Wood writes with knowledge and compassion and, in spite of the nightmarish worlds he re-creates, he suffuses the novel with warmth and affection. He tells us in an afterword that this is the last novel in the series, which is a pity. But it will be interesting to see what comes next.
The third in Adam LeBor’s Budapest-set trilogy about Detective Balthazar Kovacs, Dohany Street examines the way much of the wealth in Hungary has been acquired since the Second World War – and at whose cost. As the worlds of business, journalism, politics and policing collide, a young Israeli historian disappears on the eve of an Israeli diplomatic visit to Budapest. Balthazar, who is a Gypsy, confronts not only the suffering of his people in the Holocaust but also the criminality of many members of his immediate family. Before he has untangled all the strands of the crimes that surround the historian’s disappearance, he faces severe physical suffering. Stronger on plot and history than character and atmosphere, this is a serious and educative novel.
Rod Reynolds leaves London behind in his latest novel, which is set in East Coast America and features an agreeable, dogged female cop investigating a possible serial killer. Detective Casey Wray, known as Big, has fought for her place in the team, facing down sexism and mockery. Her mentor, Lieutenant Ray Carletti, finds himself at odds with their boss, Robbie McTeague; her partner, Dave Cullen, is the father of two young daughters and so exhausted by family responsibilities that he’s considering quitting the job. They are sent to investigate a 911 call from a terrified young woman claiming someone is going to kill her. Good characterisation, realistic personal dilemmas and convincing portrayals of policing make this an effective thriller.
Nikki May’s engaging debut is a crime novel only in the sense that it recounts the build-up to major violence. There’s no detection involved; instead May offers growing suspicion and many questions. Three Anglo-Nigerian friends in London support each other through work and relationship difficulties: Simi is obsessed with fashion, stick thin and married to an Englishman, Martin, who wants children; Ronke is a dentist, obsessed with food and less thin, who keeps taking up with unsuitable men who remind her of her idolised but dead father; Boo is an academic frustrated by domesticity and the way her French husband and daughter gang up on her. They confide in each other while still keeping back some secrets, fall out over trivialities and make up easily, until an old friend from Simi’s Nigerian childhood turns up in London and rocks all sorts of boats. All three friends convince as they work out who they are and where their real loyalties lie. It is impossible not to root for them – even when they are doing stupid things – and to envy them the delicious-sounding food Ronke cooks at every opportunity.