My crime novels of the year
The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly (Hodder & Stoughton). A twisty, inventive psychological crime novel inspired by Kit Williams’s Masquerade, which invited readers to take part in a treasure hunt to find a buried golden hare.
A Heart Full of Headstones by Ian Rankin (Orion). John Rebus has retired but still helps out on cold cases in Edinburgh. Here he battles to bring to justice the city’s most prolific organised criminal and corrupter of police, at whatever cost to himself.
The Bookseller of Inverness by S G MacLean (Quercus). Set six years after the Battle of Culloden destroyed the Jacobites’ hope of putting Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne, this well-researched and tender novel pits those who won’t give up their faith in him against the Hanoverians, who are determined to break the Scottish clans for good.
The Empty Room by Brian McGilloway (Constable). An account of a mother’s determination to find out the truth about her young daughter’s disappearance. It is written with unflashy brilliance and is intensely moving.
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G Summers (Faber & Faber). A beautifully written, funny and utterly chilling novel about a female serial killer and cannibal written by an academic who divides her time between Stockholm and New York.
Stay Buried is remarkably assured for a first crime novel and fits easily into the genre of warm, rural murder fiction exemplified by Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series. Kate Webb’s police officers are DI Matt Lockyer and DC Gemma Broad, who are working on cold cases in Wiltshire. Lockyer was sidelined into this role a year ago after acting questionably during an investigation into a friend. Like all good fictional cops, he has private troubles as well as professional stresses. His first major investigation involved a young woman who was convicted of murdering her employer’s son. Now fourteen years into her sentence, she phones Lockyer from prison with information that leads to the reopening of her case. Webb takes the reader backwards and forwards between the past and the present, offering subplots and misdirection of all kinds, as well as some memorable characters and astute social commentary.
Chris Hammer’s novels about the struggles and poverty endemic to many areas of Australia are eye-opening. Here he sends Nell Buchanan, introduced in Opal Country, back to the region where she grew up, exposing her to the deepest, darkest secrets of her wider family. She has been promoted to homicide detective and goes with Ivan Lucic to investigate a very cold case. An explosion in one of the regulators (small dams at the mouth of a creek) has revealed a decomposed body, which has to be identified before anyone can search for the killer. The main narrative is interspersed with sections set in the 1940s and the 1970s, introducing members of Nell’s family and their neighbours. Their stories are well told and include enough detail and feeling to make the characters sympathetic. Ravishing descriptions of the flooded landscape offer relief from the crimes of the past and link thematically to the emotional liberation that comes to the characters when their dammed-up secrets are forced out.
Salma and Bilal have moved from a difficult estate in Ilford to a more peaceful one a few miles away to remove their teenage son Zain from dangerous friends. Their finances are stretched because Bilal’s restaurant closed during the pandemic and they haven’t been able to sell the premises. Invited to a neighbour’s barbecue on their first day in the new house, Salma is on the lookout for reasons to take offence. Plenty come, mainly from Tom, the neighbour on the other side, who takes down Zain’s Black Lives Matter banner and later criticises the smell of Salma’s cooking. Rage escalates on both sides, making life difficult for Zain and Tom’s son, who like each other. Everyone involved feels that their own prejudices are warranted and their various actions justified. The subterranean war between the households eventually erupts into violence and they all end up in court. At a time when some people appear to consider it a badge of honour to feel offended by others, this novel carries an important message.
DCS Kat Frank returns to work after taking compassionate leave in the aftermath of her husband’s death from cancer. She is given the lead in a pilot project designed to find out whether artificial intelligence can beat human detection. Having experienced in private the shortcomings of AI, she intends the pilot to show that instinct and experience will always win out. The AI with which she works is more advanced than anything yet available in the real world, but Jo Callaghan notes in an afterword that this kind of technology might be available ‘in the near future’. The cases on which Kat chooses to try out the AI system concern two missing young men. The ideas in this first novel are fascinating and Kat’s slow discovery of what the technology can offer is accompanied by a scientific assessment of so-called gut instinct. The revelation of the full villainy involved in the two men’s disappearance is intriguing, but it is Kat – her personality, her relationship with her young son and her experience of loss – that really lifts this novel.
This London-set thriller deals with the links between international money launderers, old-fashioned East End gangsters and corrupt members of the Establishment. A young lawyer from a poor background is working at a big City firm and is sent by his charismatic senior partner to get an aggrieved woman to sign a non-disclosure agreement in return for a large payment from their most important client, who is planning to build an enormous hydrogen plant on the outskirts of London. Thus begins Lewis Miller’s journey from naivety to enlightenment by way of fear, violence and admirable grit. The novel is stronger on plot than character, but Lewis is an appealing fellow and if his view that virtue can exist only in places where money isn’t made is a bit simplistic, it’s an idea that will please a lot of readers.
Age of Vice is an involving story about crime on a grand scale, told through the lives of three main characters. Ajay comes from a poor family in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. His mother sells him in order to feed the rest of the family and he is taken to a mountain farm, where his new owner tells him his wages will be sent to his mother. In fact there are none, but he is better fed than he has ever been and, always eager to please, learns how to do his work and makes friends in the local village. This stands him in good stead when his owner dies and his services are no longer needed. He catches the eye of Sunny Wadia, heir to one of the richest men in India, who employs him as a servant in Delhi. Among his duties is driving Sunny’s girlfriend, Neda, to secret rendezvous. She is a journalist, belongs to a higher caste than Sunny and has liberal values. Her friends and colleagues have alarming things to tell her about Sunny and his family. When people are killed one evening, she learns for herself exactly how ruthless they can be. Written with panache, this novel offers an alarming portrait of modern India, full of crime, cruelty and corruption.
If I had allowed my dislike of futuristic fiction to stop me opening Peter May’s latest novel, I would have missed an excellent mixture of police procedural, redemption tale, political thriller and vision of what Scotland might become if the world does not deal with climate change. It is 2051 and meltwater has messed up the Gulf Stream, to the extent that Scotland is freezing and much of the Netherlands has disappeared, along with many other coastal regions of the world. DI Cameron Brodie, a widower estranged from his only child and suffering from cancer, agrees to investigate the body of a man found in an ice tunnel near a large nuclear plant. He is a flawed, enormously sympathetic character. The narrative switches between the investigation and his time as a young officer falling in love with the wife of an abuser. Both stories work well. The writing is as crisp as the snow-covered landscape, the research is impressive and the relationships are convincing.
The last novel in Olivier Norek’s hard-hitting and award-winning trilogy is set, like the others, in Seine-Saint-Denis on the edge of Paris and features Capitaine Victor Coste. It has a cast of police and criminals, ranging from small-time kidnappers to a big organised-crime family, almost all of whom end up feeling that they have been betrayed. If it were not written with such knowledge and zest, this would be the most depressing crime novel of the year.