Charlie Higson’s first adult novel for several years provides a portrait of a sickeningly familiar figure: the narcissistic, power-mad male lover of adolescent female bodies. Julian has created a little empire on the island of Corfu which purports to be a tennis academy for gifted female players. He is said to be perfecting a training system, which involves breaking trainees down psychologically before building them up again, lots of physical punishment for his pleasure and plenty of sex. His staff know what goes on but protect their own jobs by keeping quiet. The local great and good are happy to accept his lavish hospitality and he clearly has links to organised crime. There is also Pixie, Julian’s maîtresse-en-titre, who knows she is now too old for his tastes but is going to fight all the way to retain her position. The chaotic and exciting denouement is brilliantly executed and funny. But Higson is so good at what he does that it is frustrating that he hasn’t done a little more, such as speeding up the narrative ahead of the finale and giving Julian some charm or charisma to explain his power over people. He is revolting throughout.
The overwhelming atmosphere of Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway mysteries is one of kindness. Ruth, a forensic archaeologist, lives with her young daughter, Kate, and makes no demands on Kate’s father, Harry Nelson, a detective, although she has the warmest of feelings for him and welcomes any approach he makes. Together, Ruth and Harry investigate the dead bodies that emerge from the Norfolk soil and waterways and try to balance their relationship with Harry’s duty to his police colleagues, his wife and their children. This time, their lives are complicated by Covid-19 and the lockdown rules, while Ruth herself has a wholly personal mystery to unravel. In spite of the dark deeds and suffering their investigations reveal, this series offers nothing but pleasure and a kind of intelligent gentleness.
Tom Harkin is back in Ireland after the First World War, tormented by dreams and memories of the mud and body parts of Flanders. He also has many physical scars and is suffering the aftereffects of repeated concussion when he is sent to investigate the death of Maud Prendeville. A daughter of the Protestant ascendancy, Maud nevertheless took part in the 1916 Easter Rising. She was also once engaged to Harkin, but broke it off during the war. Now she has been shot in a car with a young British officer and a district inspector, James Teevan. A detachment of volunteers belonging to the IRA is known to have shot up the car and killed Teevan and the British officer, but the word is that they left Maud alive because she was one of their own and someone else killed her. There are plenty of suspects for Harkin to investigate as he stays in the dilapidated mansion of Maud’s family, unravelling the confused and confusing loyalties of the area. W C Ryan writes with precision and elegance of both material things and the subtlest of emotions. This is the best historical crime novel set in Ireland I have read.
Chris Hammer’s stand-alone novel deals with power, responsibility and betrayal in many different forms. The fictional town of Finnigans Gap in the Australian Outback is the site of a series of small opal mines and also possibly a source of highly desirable rare earth metals. The opal miners tend to be cash-strapped loners, working their own small concessions, whereas the rare earth metals are the target of big financiers. The police become involved in the area when an anonymous caller reports finding the body of a miner, Jonas McGee, crucified in his own mine. Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic flies in with a team and joins forces with a local detective constable, Nell Buchanan. She is an excellent character, strong, appealing and convincingly female. Both officers have their own issues, while the inhabitants of Finnigans Gap are a lot more complicated than they seem. From the web of enmities and betrayals, revelation after revelation emerges. This is a confident and interesting reworking of the police procedural.
Dan Raglan, who served in the French Foreign Legion, is as tough as they come, believing that the ‘mission’ (whatever it may be) is more important than any other consideration, including his own and his comrades’ lives. Now retired from the legion, he operates as a freelance, and is sucked into a lethal international conspiracy that forces him to analyse many old loyalties and work out which of his friends is betraying him and his ideals. David Gilman excels in the action scenes he devises for Raglan and gives his narrative an appealing air of authenticity.
For all those waiting for another outing for spymaster Jackson Lamb, this collection of Mick Herron’s short stories should fill a few gaps. Lamb’s familiar team of failed spies doesn’t appear, but there is a painful examination of his past in Cold War Berlin during a conversation between him and the archivist Molly Doran among the memorial stones at the spies’ church in Highgate. Other stories feature the private-eye team of Zoë Boehm and her kind if hapless husband, Joe Silverman, and some bring in previously unknown characters. Herron entices us into their worlds with the gentlest of seductions, persuading us to believe everything before delivering a sucker punch. A desire for revenge drives a lot of his characters – and they don’t much like long walks in the rain.
Readers sometimes ask how writers can use the worst of human pain and misery for entertainment. Ewan Gault’s second novel could have been written for them. There is no entertainment here. He introduces us to teenage cousins John and Malky, who come from a fishing family on the northeast coast of Scotland. Neither wants to work on John’s father’s boat, and Gault’s vivid first chapter, which is set on the boat as they fish up the body of John’s elder brother, shows exactly why. Even though it’s pointed out that the town is no prison and they could leave at any time, they see drugs as their only escape. But the desolation endures and the only credible outcome is despair.
Gilly Macmillan takes the theme of the house party that goes hellishly wrong and uses it here to explore friendship, marriage and thwarted expectations. Her characters head to an isolated barn conversion on the moors of Northumberland. When Jayne, Ruth and Emily arrive ahead of their husbands they discover a parcel that includes a note informing them that one of the men will be killed by its writer, who signs the note only as ‘E’. One member of the friendship group, the recently widowed Edie, won’t be joining them at the barn and has a history of playing cruel practical jokes. As the weather worsens, the three women try to make sense of the letter, hoping their husbands will turn up the following day. In traditional detective stories, all the suspects are given reasons to have hated whichever character ends up dead. Macmillan brings the genre up to date by handing out psychiatric or medical disorders to her characters, among them alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, dyscalculia, paranoia and erotomania. With some clever sleight of hand, she generates considerable tension.
Simon Mason’s new novel, featuring two Oxford detective inspectors with almost the same name, plays many games with readers. DI Ryan Wilkins and DI Ray Wilkins could hardly be more different in their backgrounds and attitudes to work and home life. Neither turns out to be quite what we are led to expect. They clash over the murder of an unknown young woman in an Oxford college. Their investigation widens and in so doing touches on many contemporary issues, including immigration, terrorism, sexual misconduct, domestic violence and the gap between rich and poor, but at the heart of the novel is Ryan’s character and back story. The scene in which he reluctantly confronts his past is both horrifying and moving. If it seems a bit unlikely that he achieved his rank in the police, he is nevertheless an engaging character.
This extraordinary first novel is set between 1643 and 1703. Its hero, Thomas Treadwater, is too rational to believe in witches, unlike his sixteen-year-old sister, Esther, but he is still prey to many of the ideas of his time. In response to a pleading letter from her, he has returned home from the Civil War to find the family farm in trouble. His father has had a stroke, dead sheep lie in the fields and Esther has accused a family servant of witchcraft. Tom is a wonderful character who has messed up his education and disappointed his father, hates life in the army and wants to do his best for everyone. He has an appalling moral choice to make. Rosie Andrews writes well in a convincing voice that avoids both flagrant anachronism and unnecessary Godwottery. The build-up to the murder is long but so engrossing that Andrews keeps us with her all the way.