Surprisingly, few of the writers who actually lived in wartime London used it as the setting for detective novels, but it has become increasingly familiar in fiction and TV. In Stratton’s War, as in TV’s Foyle’s War, an incorruptible, admirable Detective Inspector doggedly tracks down individual killers in an era of mass slaughter. Ted Stratton is determined to investigate the death of a retired film star, although the coroner has ruled that it was suicide and Stratton’s superiors have ordered him to lay off. The investigation brings him into contact with MI5, where the beautiful but unhappy Diana has discovered that her boss is involved with a secretive pro-German organisation. Secret Service agents, gangsters, good honest cockneys and the blitz combine to make an immensely pleasurable read. Laura Wilson writes beautifully, creates characters we believe in and applies a vivid imagination to well-researched facts, including Bletchley Park, evacuation, night-life, and the contemporary diet. Not all these details are necessary to the plot but the book would be less enjoyable without them, and the actual story, in which the poor but honest hero takes on rich and well-connected opponents, is convincing and exciting.
The author is a practising clinical psychologist and his detective hero is a doctor with an interest in the infant subject of psychology; the setting is Vienna, at a time when the Habsburg Empire seemed eternal. These ingredients add up to a recipe for an enjoyable and original series, of which this is the third volume. Dr Lieberman again works with Inspector Reinhardt, as they investigate the mysterious death of an army cadet at an academy in the Vienna woods. Militarism, masochism and caste-consciousness make the school a horrible place; in a way it’s only surprising that more murder isn’t committed. Only a few miles distant is the gemütlich Vienna of coffee houses, chamber music and Dr Freud, made vivid and fascinating but with a sinister undercurrent with premonitions of what the twentieth century would bring. Highly recommended.
A really creepy plot based on one of the Shetland Islands’ nastier legends brings folklore up against high-tech modern science. The story is told by Tora, a consultant obstetrician recently moved up from the south, who accidentally unearths the mutilated body of a young woman and finds herself caught up in an investigation that gradually reveals the primitive iniquity underlying the island’s modernity. The combination of folklore and forensics works well, and the story grabs from the very beginning and holds on tight. It’s well enough written to get away with a slightly inane solution.
Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick is nearing retirement, but when a dispute between rival gangs turns bloody he is hauled back to the front line even though his colleague and partner, Detective Inspector Lynn Kellogg, is personally as well as professionally involved. She, meanwhile, continues to investigate a people- trafficking and drug-running case even though a higher authority has told her to lay off. Several parallel investigations come together, and even overlap, in a neatly dovetailed plot. John Harvey has won prizes and plaudits for his series of police procedurals, told in an economical but eloquent style and portraying the slimy underside of provincial England with chilly realism. This episode is dark, pessimistic and, too sadly, credible.
‘Someone who will do anything to be president shouldn’t be president.’ That is the message of this anguished political novel in which the crime is committed by society not individuals: that is, the corruption of the American political process and the dangerous alliance between big business interests and religious conservatism. What chance of nomination is there for a man who is honest, who does not flaunt his faith, and whose girlfriend is black? Not much, in a society whose electorate is manipulated by demagogues, whose elite have grown up believing ‘that their great contribution to America was simply to be themselves’ and have come to take it for granted that bribing politicians with donations is the only way the wealthy can cancel out the effects of letting ordinary people vote. An absorbing, angry, sad book about the death of democracy and the way that ‘contemporary politics as practised are accelerating America’s decline’.
A naked woman is clinging to Clifton suspension bridge listening to her mobile phone. As Professor Joe O’Loughlin tries to talk her out of committing suicide, she plunges to her death. Joe takes her death personally, especially when the dead woman’s daughter turns up on his doorstep. He needs to find out who talked a devoted mother, not short of money or crossed in love, into doing something so unlikely. The reader is drawn inexorably into the story because the characters are very convincing as real people in a tragic situation. The criminal O’Loughlin confronts is genuinely terrifying: ‘I know more about psychology than you’ll ever know. I can break open a mind. I can take it apart. I can play with the bits.’ It’s true; he can and more than once, he does.
Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill. The second appearance of the Laotian Siri, the unwilling national coroner, sceptical communist and ‘honorary consul to the spirit world’. The characters are as endearing, and the exotic setting as interesting, as in the first episode, though this time with an overdose of the supernatural.
The Ninth Stone by Kylie Fitzpatrick. The slums of Victorian London, palaces in Imperial India and fabulous, legendary jewels make a rich brew, with perhaps too much atmospheric background and not enough action to make this first book strictly qualify as a crime novel, but it’s enormously enjoyable and the heroine is delightful.
Innocent Blood by Elizabeth Corley. This is the second in what promises to be an unusually good series of police procedurals, featuring a pair of perfectionist police officers. The story is enriched by their contrasting approaches to solving crimes – in this case a convincing and chilling paedophile ring. Highly recommended.
The Butcher of Smithfield by Susanna Gregory. Susanna Gregory is a Cambridge academic so her fiction carries a certain authority which enriches the historical background. After thirteen mediaeval mysteries, this interesting series is set in Restoration London, and features the Lord Chancellor’s secret agent, Thomas Challoner.