Set against a backdrop of the wrecked fishing industry of Hull, David Mark’s latest novel is a powerful mixture of drama, brutality, courage and vengeance. The trawlermen of northeast England’s bleakest port used to spend two weeks at sea before having a few days at home, drinking prodigiously and getting the wives pregnant again. Sometimes it was their own wives, sometimes their mates’ wives. Everyone turned a blind eye to seven-month pregnancies and there were many families in which ‘mothers’ were actually grandmothers and ‘sisters’ were mothers. Sometimes the men had a lot of money and at others their families were only a pawnshop visit away from starvation. Mark’s descriptions of the terrifying moments when the sea would smash their ships and their bones to splinters are magnificent. The plot is driven by one woman’s determination to solve some long-standing mysteries and the equal determination of the surviving players to stop her. Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh searches for clues in Iceland, while Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy carries the load in Hull. Cold Bones is the best novel so far in Mark’s impressive series. It shows the men’s pride in their terrible working lives and the trauma they and their families suffered when the brutal industry died and their lives became less physically painful but aimless.
James Lee Burke is a wonderful writer with a particular talent for describing the light and landscape of Louisiana. He is also a master of misery. The New Iberia Blues is the latest in his long series of prize-winning novels featuring Detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel. Almost all of its important characters have had terrible childhoods. Beaten, sexually abused, deprived and exploited, some spend their adult lives acting out their own distress and punishing the rest of the world for it, while others fight to repair the damage and make sure later generations don’t suffer.
Robicheaux visits a childhood friend, who has found success in Hollywood and returned to Louisiana to make his great cinematic masterpiece. While standing on the terrace of his house, Robicheaux sees the corpse of a woman nailed to a wooden cross floating in the sea. This is only the first in a series of highly ritualised killings he must investigate. He also has to solve the older man’s dilemma: when a beautiful, much younger woman flirts with you, should you reciprocate or keep well away? As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that Robicheaux – and Burke – can have it both ways.
Robicheaux’s film director friend specialises in light and shade, and by the end of this powerful novel I couldn’t help feeling that a little more light, in the form of a few happy childhoods or satisfactory adult relationships, might have improved it.
DC Jo Boden joined the police because of the close bond she formed with a family liaison officer after her elder sister was murdered at university. She intervenes, in a terrifyingly violent confrontation, with organised criminals to protect her vulnerable CHIS (covert human intelligence source) and so comes to the attention of a senior officer with the clout to get her promoted. But her professional advancement is threatened when the man who has served sixteen years for her sister’s murder is released from prison on licence.
Jo is an excellent character, brave, good-hearted, intelligent and bothered by all sorts of problems that are familiar to most women, such as the primary responsibility for looking after her depressed and difficult mother (her father has remarried a younger woman and her brother has escaped to live in Canada). Jo also deals in a realistic way with amorous colleagues and superiors, as well as with memories of her starry sister and the new light thrown on those memories by the discovery of her long-hidden diaries.
This is a very female novel that shows absolutely no sign of the humiliating silliness typical of so much domestic noir. The plot works well, the characters are credible and the research is good and used judiciously.
In 1997 two sisters aged six and eleven abducted a toddler, Kirstie, from a playground, took her to a secret place and killed her. The younger, well below the age of criminal responsibility, was never tried, but her elder sister, Laurel, has been in an adult prison since she turned eighteen, kept behind bars in part thanks to the campaigns of the dead child’s aunt. In the present day the younger sister is living under a new name. She has a partner and no memory of what actually happened after the abduction. On holiday in Devon, she is forced to confront her past when another child is taken and she falls under suspicion once more.
Alice Clark-Platts is a former human rights lawyer who has dealt with cases involving some of the worst examples of brutality. In this novel she shows intelligence and compassion in the way she writes about the interconnected stories of all the players in the case, and particularly about the emotional imprisonment endured by Kirstie’s campaigning aunt. The need to provide twists, surprises and sudden drama supplies the only false notes in an engrossing examination of the tragic phenomenon of child murder carried out by other children.
Chris Hammer introduces us to a middle-aged journalist pursuing a story and finding that it forces him to come to terms with his own life, career and past selfishness. The drama takes us to the drilling heat of the Australian Outback. Martin Scarsden has been sent to the drought-stricken town of Riversend a year after the local priest gunned down a number of men. The town’s young police officer managed to shoot him and then held his hand until he died. Scarsden’s brief is to write about how Riversend’s residents are dealing with the disaster. At the same time he has to revisit and deal with his own traumatic kidnapping in the Gaza Strip.
The secrets he uncovers in the Outback as he fights vividly described heat, thirst, fire, horrible hotel accommodation and uncooperative inhabitants lead him on to yet more secrets and much more human distress. He’s no Jack Reacher, striding into town to bash the bad guys into submission, but his aim is the same: to clean out the corruption and the villainy and restore the place to a condition in which the honest can thrive. While there is never any doubt about whether a superhero like Reacher can prevail, there is a real question over Martin’s powers, and the blockades put in his way by the bad guys – and by his own employers – are convincing enough to allow Hammer to create tension as well as genuine feeling. This is his first crime novel and I look forward to its sequels.
No parent with a child travelling the world on his or her gap year should read this novel, but anyone planning such travels would do well to absorb every word. The novel deals with the disappearance of Alex and Rosie from a scuzzy guesthouse in Thailand. The twin investigators, familiar from Fiona Barton’s earlier work, are journalist Kate Waters and DI Bob Sparkes, both of whom are sent to Thailand to chase leads.
Barton’s experience in journalism both informs the story, enabling her to describe frankly Kate’s exploitation of the victims’ families, and leads to some expert scene-setting. Where many novelists misjudge the amount of detail readers need to engage with the narrative and characters, Barton gets it right. Her plot hinges on two enormous coincidences, but real life throws up unlikely connections every day, so this seems fair. Kate’s questionable ethics leave readers with plenty to think about.
For those who enjoy domestic noir, Vanessa Savage has written a fast-moving example. Her ingredients are familiar: a sensitive artistic heroine, who may or may not be mentally ill; an insensitive husband, who may or may not be a psychopath; and a mystery about which the heroine is not allowed to ask questions. Sarah married Patrick after they met at a student party and fell in love. Now they are a family of four.
The action is driven by Patrick’s determination to move the family from Cardiff to a seaside house where he spent his apparently idyllic boyhood. In the intervening period the house became the scene of a gruesome killing spree, which has made it hard to sell. Sarah is reluctant and the children hate the idea, but Patrick prevails, and all kinds of scary things start happening. This is nastier than most domestic noir because of the way the children are involved in the unfolding drama. It also digs much more deeply into the reasons why a dangerous character becomes so. There is some convincing emotion to lift the story out of predictability too.