This is probably the most disturbing crime novel I have read, and the bravest. Lex is a lawyer working in the United States when she is summoned back to Britain because her mother, of whose will she is executor, has died. So far so ordinary, but Lex’s mother had been serving a twenty-five-year sentence and died in prison. Her late husband, deranged and cruel, had tormented their seven children and she, whether complicitly or as a result of coercion, had done nothing to save them. Lex escaped in her teens and sounded the alarm. The authorities split up the surviving children, sending them for treatment with different psychiatrists and then adoption in separate parts of the country. Now Lex must find her siblings and obtain their signatures if she is to prove the will and dispose of the proceeds as she wants. The account of her efforts is interspersed with memories of the years of suffering, revealing more of the experiences of each child and the means they found to keep going. Abigail Dean makes the horror entirely clear without descending into unbearable wallowing. This is an intelligent, well-judged and absolutely heartbreaking novel.
Psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo has moved back to Nigeria from San Francisco because his wife, a law professor, wants their children to live in a place where their skin colour isn’t the most noticeable thing about them. Under pressure from his father, a doctor who never left Lagos, Philip looks into the killing of three young men. Many people want the investigation called off, but Philip fights on, in spite of threats, brutality and personal difficulties. Femi Kayode offers a frightening picture of a society divided between rich and poor, educated and not, in which corruption and cruelty are practised at all levels and noble intentions are often subverted. He also makes it clear that the failure to acknowledge and deal with suffering has terrible consequences.
Jackson Lamb is as grotesque in his personal habits as he is devious and effective in his professional life as the boss of the disgraced spies whose failings have had them posted to Slough House. He bullies and insults them, but when anyone threatens them he behaves with the ferocity of a tiger whose cubs have become someone else’s lunch. Slough House is the latest book in Mick Herron’s series about the titular building’s inhabitants. As the plot skips this way and that before tunnelling through our expectations, Herron offers his sardonic and penetrating take on the state of the nation. The jokes keep coming so that we laugh in spite of the horror of what is happening at this grubby nexus of money, politics, self-interest and manipulation. The novel ends on the cruellest cliffhanger I have ever encountered. Brilliant.
Exploring the dysfunctional lives of three generations of women, The Push deals with the way damage is handed down, through either genetics or learned experience. The novel opens with the youngest of the women, Blythe, gazing through the window at her daughter and her ex-husband, with his new partner and their child. What follows, Blythe explains, is her side of the story. The mystery at the heart of the book is who caused the death of baby Sam. But the main question is the one that seems to be faced by so many new mothers: is this creature who tore my body, wrecked my sleep and removed me from all the hard-won satisfactions of adult life genuinely touched by the devil or am I a monster to resent her so?
Philippa East’s second novel, Safe and Sound, addresses a similar subject to The Push. The first-person narrator, Jenn, works for a housing association and worries about her nine-year-old son’s health and cognitive abilities. They live alone in a tiny flat on a tiny income, supported by an allowance from her father. One day, accompanying bailiffs to a housing association flat to deal with the non-payment of rent, she finds the decomposing body of the tenant and is determined to find out who she was and what happened to her. Jenn’s narrative is interspersed with sections titled ‘Back Then’, about two young female cousins living with the burden of their experiences. As an exploration of guilt, the novel works well. It also offers a piece of psychotherapeutic advice: facing the unacknowledged source of one’s unhappiness and avoiding all make-believe are essential to wellbeing.
Tony Parsons excels at presenting his narratives in the clearest possible prose while revealing the toughest of human emotions. Here, stay-at-home father Christian cares for the entrancing five-year-old Marlon, while his ambitious wife, Tara, builds up her dating app business. They met as successful music journalists in the days when such work earned an adequate income. Now she is flying high and he feels a failure. On a business trip to Japan, she has a one-night stand with an older man. Disaster follows. My only quarrel with this fast-moving and involving novel is the ending. I can see the temptation to do what Parsons has done, but it lessens the story’s credibility.
Will Shindler knows what he’s doing. A broadcaster and scriptwriter with experience working on popular shows such as The Bill, he is able to call on police expertise as part of his research and can construct a plot that keeps the reader with him. A rich, twitchy businessman meets his adult daughter in Crystal Palace, where they are accosted by a masked, knife-wielding thug who tells the man to choose whether to run away and leave his daughter to be raped or to stay, in which case both of them will be killed. He runs away, trying to get help. The local police, led by Alex Finn, who first appeared in Shindler’s The Burning Men, painstakingly build a picture of the killer. Warm and dealing with recognisable emotions, this is the best kind of police procedural.
In 1536 Florence is ruled by Alessandro de’ Medici, known as ‘the Moor’ for his dark skin and possible African ancestry. His various Medici cousins have ambitions to succeed him, and the city itself is riven by rivalries, violence and criminality of all sorts. D V Bishop handles the historical setting well in City of Vengeance, his first crime novel. Its protagonist is the fictional Cesare Aldo, who was once a mercenary for the Medicis. Aldo is wise, cynical, brave and plagued with painful knees. We meet him as the novel opens, working as a bodyguard for a moneylender on a journey between Bologna and Florence. Aldo is subject to the authority of various people and has to exercise the skills of an expert juggler to keep enough of them happy to ensure his survival. He is a terrific character. I am not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy of the novel, but it’s a good work of fiction, and there are some charming descriptions: ‘the constable could see mulberry twigs lying beneath the bed, put there to draw fleas away from the mattress’. My only gripe is Bishop’s unnecessary use of such ordinary Italian words as ospedale, bastardo and officio in place of their English equivalents. There’s quite enough sense of place and atmosphere without it.
Rich app designer Miles donated sperm when he was young and poor. Now he has been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and is determined to find any children conceived with his sperm to warn them and share with them some of his vast fortune. Several other people believe they have a prior claim on his generosity. At the same time, an even richer New Yorker with a tanned, chiselled face and thick grey hair, dozens of influential people at his beck and call and a penchant for very young women, is growing afraid that one of his victims is about to go the police. The two plot strands meet and become intertwined. Linwood Barclay has written a wildly entertaining adventure story with some serious matters giving it weight.
The cruelties of the title are those perpetrated by a group of siblings in Ireland and their troubled, exhibitionist mother. We meet two of the unnamed brothers at the funeral of the third. The novel then leaps back in time to their shared past, with sections narrated from the points of view of each. It is hard to believe that anyone could be quite as revolting, greedy and egotistical as the two survivors, but Liz Nugent makes them horribly convincing.