Twenty years after leaving Oxford University, three men and two women meet again at a weekend reunion. They include an American doctor specialising in public health, a Canadian medic who works with the poorest of the poor in Africa, a Karachi-born academic working in New York, an advertising genius born in Australia and an Oxford don. At some point one of them suggests a brilliant scam concerning vaccine-preventable diseases and the fact that access to vaccines is very far from universal. The discussion of the scam starts out as a joke, but gradually they all realise that, if taken seriously, it could change the world for the better – so long as nothing goes wrong. In lucid, persuasive prose Peter Adamson tells a truly gripping story about something profoundly important and relevant. This is a book I am very glad to have read.
The first book in Mick Herron’s series about the inept spies of Slough House took the world of crime writing by storm, earning rave reviews. Each of the subsequent instalments won national and international prizes. This is the fifth instalment and Herron’s descriptions of the secret service are sharper, funnier and more distorted than ever. The book’s personnel are cartoon-like grotesques with real-life parallels, among them a show-off Brexiteer MP (married to a gossip columnist) who intends to topple and take the place of the beleaguered prime minister, and the prime minister’s favourite Muslim, who is about to be elected mayor of the West Midlands and aims to become the first Muslim prime minister. To a very original spy story Herron adds many unusual ingredients, displaying his ear for how language is spoken – for example, throughout the book, ‘going to’ is written ‘gonna’ – and some razor-sharp wordplay: ‘Before committing Hare Krishna let’s see if we’ve got wiggle room when it comes to assigning blame.’ ‘Hara-Kiri.’ ‘You’re welcome.’
Surprisingly few novels have been set in the Isles of Scilly, which is odd, considering how strange and magical they are. One of the most successful of the few is Sam Llewellyn’s Hell Bay. Llewellyn’s novel was historical fiction. Kate Rhodes’s mystery of the same name, by contrast, is set in the present day, which is brave; I have never dared set a novel in the Isles of Scilly, which I know well and love, for fear of libel actions. Rhodes’s story takes place on the tiny island of Bryher (only two kilometres long and one kilometre wide), where some eighty people live. Nearly all of their fictional equivalents turn out to have embarrassing secrets. A local boy who made good as a detective inspector in London comes home to convalesce but has only just arrived when a beautiful teenager is murdered. The inspector has to question his own relations, his former teachers, even his best friend. Hell Bay is an enjoyable whodunnit in classic, quasi-realistic style, though in real life the Devon and Cornwall Police would never leave a murder investigation to be carried out by one man and a boy.
Paul Mendelson has published several books about bridge and poker and once explained that ‘both are games that require taking many tiny pieces of information and putting them together to form a logical outcome. This is not dissimilar to detective work in fiction and is certainly fundamental to constructing an absorbing story.’ That is exactly what he has done in this excellent and gripping novel. Colonel Vaughn De Vries of Cape Town’s Special Crimes Unit is investigating a particularly brutal murder, the victim of which was found in an uninhabited mansion overlooking the ocean. Like all the best fictional detectives, De Vries is brave, intuitive, stubborn and always ready to disobey an order. He, his colleagues and Cape Town itself, experiencing the highest temperatures ever recorded there, seem vividly real.
This story is narrated by the kind of heroine who is currently popular: alone, traumatised, observant but always disbelieved when she tries to alert others to dangers she has recognised. She is dependent on medication and, as in far too many contemporary crime novels, perpetually drunk. The narrator and heroine of this book is a child psychologist. After a traumatic event in her life she has become agoraphobic and for nearly a year has not been able to set foot outside her big New York house. But using a zoom lens on her camera, she spies on her new neighbours and becomes unhappily involved with them and their teenage son. The pseudonymous author is a (male) publisher, and this first novel, according to the many famous crime writers who have written endorsements of it, is unputdownable, mesmerising, riveting and so on. I found it competent, fashionable and readable.
Anyone who understands what ‘this is an oulipo-inspired novel’ means will find it less baffling than I did. The Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) grouping proposed the literary approach that White adapts here, constraining his choice of vocabulary to a predetermined list of words (in this case every solution to The Guardian Quick Crossword between 3 March 1985, the end of the British miners’ strike, and 1 June 1985, the date of the Battle of the Beanfield between hippies and the police). The story is divided into two halves: in the present day, a middle-aged police sergeant investigates a dramatic death backstage at a London theatre; thirty years previously, a teenage English hitchhiker moves in with a group of French squatters in a deserted hilltop village in Provence. The connection between the two sections is not immediately obvious but is explained in a short, melodramatic final chapter. The book is tricky and complicated, there is much less dialogue than description and I really needed the explanatory afterword. All the same, it is fascinating, beautifully written and really original.
A thriller about biblical archaeology, set in London and in Israel. The author, now retired, was one of the UK’s most senior doctors, but his expertise extends to numerous subjects, all of which enrich this interesting and exciting tale.
Yet another drunken heroine appears in this claustrophobic, obsessive novel about a married couple and the man who almost killed the husband, one of the money men responsible for Ireland’s financial boom of the 1990s and its subsequent bust. A very good read.
This well-plotted and well-told story is set both in the present day and back in the 1980s, when Eddie was part of a schoolboy gang. He found the mutilated body of a local girl in the woods. Thirty years on, Eddie is a teacher in the same town when an old school friend claims he knows who really killed the girl.