Daisy Waugh has great fun mixing a cosy crime caper with elements of her grandfather’s novel Brideshead Revisited and the TV adaptation that was filmed at Castle Howard. In the Crypt with a Candlestick stars the Tode family, who have owned the magnificent money pit that is Tode Hall for generations. Living there now are the recently widowed Emma, Lady Tode; her faithful retainers, Mr and Mrs Carfizzi; and a once-celebrated actor who had a big part in the television version of A Prance to the Music in Time, with his famous teddy bear, Dogmatix. The mental instability of the heir persuades Lady Tode to bring in some more distant relatives to run the house and mayhem ensues. Many jokes, good characterisation, entertaining satire and a neat resolution to the murder mystery make this novel a perfect antidote to wintry gloom.
Set in Dublin in the early 1980s, A Famished Heart deals with a shockingly perverted version of Christianity. When a depressed and bullied local priest breaks into the house of two middle-aged sisters who have not been seen for months, he finds their emaciated bodies semi-mummified. Their deaths bring scattered members of the family back together to face their own troubles, and the Gardaí investigate, without much enthusiasm from the top. This portrait of a dysfunctional society, corrupt and brutal, is horribly convincing.
Two teenage girls run away from the children’s home to which they were sent for safety from their dysfunctional families. One is found dead, with the other wailing beside the body. A third resident of the home, younger than the others, is still there, selectively mute and obsessed with collecting dead things from the surrounding land. The manager of the home is humane, concerned and dutiful while she deals with the survivors. As the police investigate the death, details of all three girls’ lives emerge, providing a shocking picture of chaotic parenting and inadequate oversight by social services and the police. My only criticism is that Annie, one of the teenagers, speaks to the reader in fluent and sophisticated language, something quite at odds with her almost total lack of education.
Sam Lloyd’s first novel deals with the kidnapping of Elissa, a young chess prodigy. Elijah, who describes himself as a twelve-year-old with a pretty high IQ, finds her chained up in a makeshift prison in the middle of the woods near his home. The novel opens on day six, with Elijah talking to the police and then going back to the uncomfortable cottage on a rich man’s estate where he lives with his peculiar family. Twenty pages later the novel reverts to day one, with Elissa still free and about to take part in a chess tournament. She is an unusual kidnap victim and Elijah an even more unusual visitor to the cellar in which he finds her. As revelations come to light about both of their lives, this novel builds into something more than a familiar story of blameless victim and psychopathic villain, exploring the human ability to tell stories that make sense of even the hardest of lives.
This psychological thriller is inspired by a real case in America, which adds to the reader’s sense of horror. A woman who has been seen by everyone to care devotedly for her chronically ill and disabled daughter is found dead and alone. The daughter, Grace, has disappeared and is presumed to have been kidnapped. While the police investigate, an unhappy and notorious journalist in need of rehabilitation and Grace’s best friend join forces to try to find her. The build-up to the drama is slow, and the descriptions of the rehabilitation of the journalist and the successful reintegration into education of Grace’s friend are both a little syrupy. It is impossible not to feel outrage at what has been done to the primary victim. Justice would be hard to find in such a case, but that doesn’t make the ending of this novel any easier to accept.
Simon is a British diplomat in Kiev at the time of the Orange Revolution. As crowds gather in Independence Square to protest at the rigging of the presidential election and the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, Simon sees an opportunity to do some good – and to boost his own career. But there are too many other people involved in the same struggle to make either ambition easy to achieve. The novel is told from different points of view and at different times. A D Miller, whose 2010 novel Snowdrops was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, conjures up characters who say much more than the words they use. This is a skilled, moving and saddening account of the waste of human potential and the brutality that often comes with the acquisition and retention of colossal amounts of money and influence.
Will Shindler, a BBC journalist for many years, has written scripts for TV dramas, including The Bill. His experience has clearly been useful in helping him structure his first police procedural. DI Alex Finn has been on compassionate leave since the death of his beloved wife but is determined to get back to work. His boss, short on staff, is landed with Mattie Paulsen, a DC from another force. Needing to give her something to do, he asks Finn to look after Paulsen and begin the investigation into a murder by arson. The investigation becomes interwoven with Finn’s wholly credible battle with bereavement and Paulsen’s need to be accepted by her new colleagues. The first dreadful killing is followed by another and it becomes clear that five firefighters, who all resigned from work after one particular inferno five years ago, have something to hide.
The pace is good and Finn is a great character. There is also an excellently portrayed organised crime boss. But the psychology of the fatal arsonist is not developed enough to make the killings believable, and the character and background of Paulsen are also thin. Shindler’s horrible misuse of the verbs to sit and to stand (‘Paulsen was stood’, ‘he was sat’) is intrusive.
Peter May has set novels in places as far apart as China and the Hebrides, but this time he takes us to the heat, colour and corruption of southern Spain. A clever but difficult Scottish cop named John Mackenzie is sent to Málaga to assist in the repatriation of a notorious British drug dealer. Nothing in Mackenzie’s life has been easy and so it is no surprise when the criminal is not produced by the Spanish police. Instead, Mackenzie is confronted with a Spanish officer, who takes him to meet her boss. The three of them become embroiled in the hunt for the absconding drugs mastermind. Tragedy is introduced through the person of Ana, the policewoman’s aunt, who is both deaf and blind and is able to communicate with the outside world only by means of a Braille-enabled computer.
Elly Griffiths’s great achievement in her Dr Ruth Galloway series has been to create an atmosphere as comforting as that of any traditional detective story and yet introduce to it credible crimes and lifelike characters with convincing preoccupations. Nearing fifty and overweight, Ruth has never been married but has had an interesting love life and is the mother of Kate, whose father, DCI Harry Nelson, is married to someone else. Ruth and Harry are obsessed with each other, while trying to make their primary relationships work. In this case they are brought together again by the search for the burial places of young women murdered by a serial killer. Griffiths’s language is straightforward, the charm of her good characters and their loyalty to each other are warming, and the clues and revelations work well.
C J Tudor’s fourth novel starts with an excellent scene in which a young father driving down a motorway sees his four-year-old daughter in the back of a beaten-up, bestickered van. He tries to give chase but loses sight of it. Shortly afterwards, he is telephoned by the police, who tell him that his wife and daughter have just been murdered. He spends the next few years driving up and down the motorway searching for clues relating to his daughter’s disappearance. When he finds pointers to what may have happened, they lead only to more mysteries, until the full horror of what is going on is revealed to him and the reader. This is a clever, tense and touching novel.