It is exactly ten years since I started writing this column following the death of Literary Review’s previous crime fiction critic, Philip Oakes. Much has changed in that decade, from the increasing numbers of female authors and protagonists to the acceptability of self-publishing. Above all, there must be twice as many crime novels published. Of these, a tiny proportion will be reviewed in traditional style; fewer still will be stocked in traditional bookshops. Most will get a mention online – there are dozens of blogs and websites dedicated to this most popular genre. But whether publicised or ignored, praised or reviled, a sizeable proportion of published crime fiction is a dead loss in financial terms. The worst sellers are often very little different from the best. Why does one drunk woman on a train make her author a millionaire while another flawed heroine flops into extinction?
Having reviewed hundreds and read thousands of crime novels, I still do not know. And to most writers it does not really matter. They will go on producing books for little money and with few readers, because that’s what writers do: they write.
If you have a taste for courtroom dramas, this novel is well worth reading. Its hero is William Benson, who was twenty-one when he realised what he wanted to do with his life: be a barrister. But after being found guilty of murder, he hadn’t a hope of achieving this ambition. Or had he? Twelve years later, he has been called to the bar, but no set of chambers will take him on and no solicitor will send him briefs. Then a desperate woman turns to him for help. She has been charged with the murder of her wealthy lover and the evidence seems overwhelming. Benson conducts this, his first case, in the face of hostility and disbelief from legal colleagues and uninhibited criticism from the media. I followed his trials, tribulations and eventual triumph with great enjoyment. This unusual courtroom drama is quick-witted and vividly imagined. It was not surprising to learn that the pseudonymous author is a prizewinning novelist and former barrister named William Brodrick.
The publication of this novel in Germany in 2012 made its author famous. This cannot be because his book is so good – actually, it has too many flaws to ignore, including plenty of clichés and a confusion of characters. But the story is exciting and its implications were apparently shocking to politicians and professionals. The book describes the lights going out all over Europe as the result of a cyber attack on electrical installations. The effect of plunging a continent into darkness and cold is catastrophic. Other crime writers and crime readers long ago recognised the vulnerability of our technology-dependent civilisation, since it is obvious that a total failure of the power supply would be lethal in modern society – a terrorist’s dream with far wider and longer-lasting results than most weapons could achieve. An afterword tells us that Elsberg has been invited to lecture on the subject by numerous international institutions.
I can’t remember another first novel that was greeted with such unanimous enthusiasm from readers and reviewers all over the world. Jane Harper, a former journalist in the UK, now lives in Australia and has set her first novel in a small outback town suffering the worst drought remembered or recorded. It is a place of tragedy. Aaron Falk, a policeman, left there as a teenager. He returns twenty years later for the funeral of Luke Hadler, a childhood friend. Hadler committed suicide after the shooting of his wife and son, a murderous act that everyone believes was performed by Hadler himself. Unwelcome though he seems to be in his home town, Falk is forced to stay on and investigate this new crime and other, older ones. I share the universal approval of this book: it is gripping, atmospheric and original.
Annie’s mother is a serial killer of small children. Annie has grown up complicit in her mother’s crimes, but when she is fifteen she informs the authorities about them. Her mother is arrested and Annie becomes Milly, the foster daughter of a child psychiatrist and the foster sister of Phoebe, who takes against her. The two girls mimic friendship at home, but school becomes a kind of battleground. The characters are sensitively portrayed and the narrative draws in the reader, even one (like me) who usually avoids books about children or grumpy adolescents. But the spell is broken by the description of the mother’s murder trial. When every other detail in the book is well researched and credible, it is all the more disappointing that the courtroom scenes are travesties. Ali Land is not the only author to base such details on American television programmes, with objections ‘overruled’ and ‘sustained’, but it always grates and in this case it sent my suspended disbelief plunging to the ground.
This novel is set in 1949 and its subject is a murder case of 1938, so it is doubly historical. It is historical in an additional sense too: it is written in polite, reticent English – as an old-fashioned reader might say – with no ‘bad language’. The story moves at a dignified pace, some of the speeches are a page long and every detail of behaviour or a particular scene is leisurely described. John Madden has retired as a police detective to become a farmer, but is still on hand to make his detecting skills available when required. In this case he must determine whether the vagrant who was hanged for murdering an actress shortly before war broke out was really guilty. This is a long, interesting and enjoyable novel with convincing characters and a persuasive plot.
Linda’s parents are the last surviving residents of a commune in the wilds of northern Minnesota: they still inhabit cabins and live off the land. Linda grows up amid the final traces of this countercultural world. But what she really wants is to understand ordinary people’s lives. She spends a lot of time watching – the other pupils at school, people in the street and, as this book opens, a young couple with a baby. When she is taken on as their babysitter, Linda edges herself into being part of the family. She wants to live a normal life and this is where she has found it – or so it seems at first. But the more she feels part of the family, the more aware she becomes that they are not what they seem. There is a good plot here, but the most memorable feature of this beautifully written first novel is the description of the woods, forests and open countryside of Linda’s childhood, which are disappearing now.
Few readers will have heard of fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, otherwise known as ‘stone man syndrome’: sufferers’ tissue regrows as bone, trapping them in their own bodies. In this novel, two children who have been diagnosed with this dreadful condition endure further agonies when they are kidnapped and held prisoner by a cruel, mad psychopath. There are vivid portraits of desperate mothers and fathers, genuinely concerned police officers, the miserable infants and their captor; I can see why the book has already aroused considerable enthusiasm. The writing is good, the psychological insights are impressive and the tension is cleverly maintained. But you need to be much tougher than I am to enjoy it. Perhaps it is unkind to say this, given that Rattle is the first novel, as Fiona Cummins tells us, of someone who ‘always dreamed of becoming an author’, but I honestly cannot understand how anyone could enjoy reading a story centred on small children in permanent pain.