Philip Oakes

Dec/Jan 2004 Crime Round Up

  • Andrew Taylor, 
  • Dreda Say Mitchell, 
  • Paul Adam, 
  • Robert B Parker, 
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra, 
  • Ed McBain

Call the Dying

By Andrew Taylor

Hodder & Stoughton 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

SEVENTH of Andrew Taylor's nostalgia-free forays into crimes and times past in Lydmouth, his fictional small town on the Anglo-Welsh borders, here resentfully coming to terms with changes about to happen in 1955 whether the populace want them or not. There are no warnings of what's to come. Sunday mornings look much the same as ever to Jdl Francis, journalist back to manage the local Gazette (after three years away in London) and still reluctantly drawn to Detective Chief Inspector Richard Thornhill, married with a young lady, itching to resume an affair but afraid to risk his career. Staring through her window Jill sees a grey sky smudged with the smoke from a hundred chimneys. 'She thought about women peeling Brussels sprouts in a hundred kitchens, while their husbands, stiff and useless in their Sunday finery, read newspapers and sipped cups of tea. That was the oddest thing - that when you felt the end of the world had come, for most people life went on just the same.' Lydmouth's doldrums are stirred, first by a feud between the ding Gazette and its rival (the Evening Post, edited by the scheming Ivor Fuggle), then by the murder of Dr Bayswater, a retired and eccentric GP who has turned his derelict garden into a rat sanctuary. A gentleman's yellow lad glove, nibbled by rats, is found lying next to his body and is traced to a missing television engineer who has disappeared while pursuing a typical Fifties-style business venture of selling cut-price TV sets to local dealers. What's rare and admirable in Taylor's fiction (especially in the Lydmouth series) is his painterly and poetic skill in transforming the humdrum into something emblematic and important. His writing is never pretentious. He strikes no attitudes. His crime scenes and procedures are meticulously observed and followed. But, significantly, what he is retailing are matters of life, death and the patterns of the changing world in which they take place. It is a large undertaking and Taylor's triumph is to have measured up to it without fuss - almost secretly, as if he's anxious not to be seen as over-ambitious. In fact, all he's guilty of is a giant modesty. He writes shrewdly and perceptively about crime and sinks that same deep shaft of understanding into the entrails of his provincial setting. It will be interesting to see how far he takes the Lydmouth series and even more intriguing to speculate how far it will take him. Call the Dying is expert, ingenious and absorbing, with its eye trained on horizons lying in wait.

Running Hot

By Dreda Say Mitchell

The Maia Press 302pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

SHARP-EYED, even sharper-tongued chase story set in gangland East London where Elijah 'Schoolboy' Campbell, West-Indian would-be chef, finds retro, seemingly worthless mobile lying close to dead man in the street, which - for reasons unknown - is fiercely coveted by rival mobs who pursue Schoolboy through darkest Hackney demanding his old Nolua or his life. He dreams of escaping to tranquil Devon, where's he's been promised a restaurant job - but will he live long enough to get there and bake his first coconut tart? Gang warfare murderously waged between Nigerian numbers crew (who identify themselves by numbers rather than names) and a Grenadian hit squad in thrall to the venomous Queen, whose enemies soon end up dead and gone, but who respects family values to the extent of smoking only when her children aren't there. Spangled with ethnic slang (clothes are 'garbs', to strangle someone is to apply the 'chicken squeeze', a dealer is a 'shotter'), the high-speed narrative is sometimes hard to follow. Humour knowing and hard-boiled: eg, a yardie pad is described as 'Del Trotter meets Cynthia Payne'. Busy, twisty plot with mystery of the retro Nolaa well sustained. First novel by Grenadian author and a good one. Distinctly different; well worth seeking out.

Sleeper

By Paul Adam

Little, Brown 310pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

GENTLE, widowed Gianni Castighone, ageing luthier (maker of stringed instruments) in the city of Cremona, visits the workshop of colleague Romaso Rainaldi to find him dead at his workbench, stabbed with a chisel, but with no obvious signs of robbery. Whodunit, and what's the motive? Gianni teams up with a detective friend and finds himself on the trail of a missing Stradivarius, companion to a violin now in the Ashmolean in Oxford, known to violin buffs as The Messiah and worth £10m. Long and baffling pursuit, hedged by crooked dealers and greedy collectors, the oddest of whom, Enrico Forlani, lives - and eventually dies - in a squalid palazzo in Venice surrounded by his collection of priceless violins and an army of rats. Much about music and the people who make it, from musicians themselves to expert forgers who apply the finish to a fake Stradivarius by 'smoothing the wood with dried dogfish skin and horsetail, a coarse, abrasive grass which still grows along the banks of the PO as it Id in the Master's day'. Riveting stuff that goes to the heart of the matter, explaining a passion which can consume as well as sustain. Very different from any of Adam's previous novels (the last one was a rousing adventure story about saving the next Dalai Lama from Chinese pursuers), but proof that versatility such as his entails no thinning of quality. Adam writes elegant, richly informed and solidly plotted novels in which the excitement has been stropped on a block of knowhow, giving a unique edge to the action. Sleeper is a deeply satisfying book which even finds room for an episode of grown-up romance. Adam handles that tender episode with all the care you'd expect. I think it's called true feeling.

Melancholy Baby

By Robert B Parker

John Murray 296pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

ROBERT Parker is now writing three separate and hugely successful thriller series: the Spenser novels (featuring an ultra-literate Boston PI), the Jesse Stone novels (centred on a former big-city cop policing an ex-urbanite community) and the Sunny Randall novels, of which this is the latest, featuring another Boston PI (this time blonde, beautiful and in constant emotional flux). Her enduring problem is that she's still in love with her ex-husband Richie, scion of a local crime dynasty: clearly the girl needs help. Parker provides it here by supplying her with the perfect shrink who turns out to be none other than the wonderful Susan Silverman, true love and enduring squeeze of the aforementioned Spenser. Nice for everybody. Togetherness is a new ingredient in crime fiction but Parker stirs it in with a dab hand. The case concerns college student Sarah Markham, who suspects, for no obvious reason, that her supposed mother and father are not her true parents. Sunny investigates and raises hackles in the jealous world of old radio presenters. Sarah is violently warned off and her alleged father, George Markham, who has reluctantly agreed to DNA testing, is murdered. The investigation and Sunny's own family problems unhappily mix and match and it's as well that a friendly shrink is standing by. Parker delivers a tangled narrative, with all knots untangled by the end, and his feminist card newly endorsed. Deft, sympathetic handling of women's problems, although, viewed objectively, Sunny's woes (she can't bear to live with anyone, but hates living alone) are as much a luxury as they are a burden. No boring male-chauvinist complaints though. Parker delivers the goods. Sleek, ingenious, well-muscled entertainment.

Paradise City

By Lorenzo Carcaterra

Simon & Schuster 352pp @10.99 order from our bookshop

BLOODY, bruising cops vs gangsters novel concerning ferocious Naples detective who flies to Manhattan to rescue young niece kidnapped by the mob and, while he's at it, wreak revenge on Camorra killer who murdered his father. Extravagantly plotted, with unsuspected blood ties gumming up the action, and operatic on such a scale that you find yourself waiting breathlessly for the aria that will signal the final shoot out. Over the top in every department, but packed with enough guts and gusto to carry twice the weight.

Hark

By Ed McBain

Orion 293pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

RETURN of the Deaf Man, the long-time bane of 87th Precinct and especially Detective Steve Carella, who leads the job of deciphering coded messages from the super-villain (mostly drawn from Shakespeare), which give clues to the time, place and nature of a coming caper. A serious and deadly game, diligently played by cops and one major robber, in the course of which Fat Ollie’s Books, the overweight slob of the 87th, manages to retrieve the possible blockbuster he wrote and lost in Fat Ollie's Book and which now seems to be the cornerstone on which his new life may rest. One of the enduring mysteries of contemporary crime writing is how McBain manages to keep it all so


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