The Broken Afternoon by Simon Mason; The Only Suspect by Louise Candlish; Dead of Night by Simon Scarrow; Death Comes to Marlow by Robert Thorogood; The Dead of Winter by Stuart MacBride; The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell; Damascus Station by David McCloskey; Other Women by Emma Flint; The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell; The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

February 2023 Crime Round-up

  • Simon Mason, 
  • Louise Candlish, 
  • Simon Scarrow, 
  • Robert Thorogood, 
  • Stuart MacBride, 
  • Laura Purcell, 
  • David McCloskey, 
  • Emma Flint, 
  • Charlotte Vassell, 
  • Inga Simpson

The Broken Afternoon

By Simon Mason

riverrun 352pp £16.99

Oxford’s unlikeliest detective inspector, poor, white, raging, under-educated Ryan Wilkins, has been dishonourably discharged. He is now working as a security guard at a lorry hire company and finds an old school mate hiding in one of the parked vehicles. The man seems terrified and so Wilkins lets him go and lies to his boss about the incursion. At the same time, his close namesake in the police DI Ray Wilkins, a black Oxford graduate and a smoothie, is charged with finding a pretty four-year-old who has been snatched from outside her nursery. Both men have family problems but are driven to work together to find out what’s happened to Poppy and who has taken her. The writing is fast and colourful, the men’s love–hate relationship is entertaining, and their own troubles add depth to this excellent police procedural.

The Only Suspect

By Louise Candlish

Simon & Schuster 432pp £14.99

Successful criminals – like successful crime writers – must be expert manipulators. Louise Candlish offers a cast of depressingly grubby exploiters, who use their victims’ vulnerability for their own gain. Not all are breaking the law, and readers must pick their way through the characters’ stories and confidences as they look for the truth in this account of murder and vengeance, deciding whom to like and whom to trust. The plot is clever, the characters are unpleasantly credible and the revelations give the tiniest sense of reassurance.

Dead of Night

By Simon Scarrow

Headline 432pp £20

In the bitter winter of 1940, honest citizens of the Third Reich have yet to understand the full monstrosity of the Nazi philosophy and actions. Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke, once a successful racing driver, is doing his best to track down and arrest malefactors of all kinds. His live-in girlfriend is determined to make him understand what the government is doing, while he tries to help Ruth, a Jewish woman, who wants him to investigate the apparent suicide of a friend she is convinced was murdered. Horst does his best to stay true to his principles, in spite of murderous attacks from a group of unknown thugs and from the Gestapo. None of them can stop him finding out the truth about a series of murders in this surprisingly warm historical police procedural.

Death Comes to Marlow

By Robert Thorogood

HQ 384pp £16.99

The resurgence of interest in cosy-crime novels suggests that many readers prefer to avoid both realism and troubling emotions. They will be happy with the second novel in Robert Thorogood’s Marlow Murder Club series, named in homage to Agatha Christie’s ‘The Tuesday Night Club’. Thorogood’s 78-year-old sleuth is Mrs Judith Potts, who lives in Marlow, swims naked in the Thames and sets crossword puzzles for the local free sheet. Invited at the last moment to the local baronet’s engagement party, she is confronted with an apparently unsolvable locked-room murder. Together with her coven of friends and an improbable police officer, she tracks down the real killer and sets the world to rights. The gentle humour in this light-hearted quest will please fans of Thorogood’s long-running BBC series Death in Paradise.

The Dead of Winter

By Stuart MacBride

Bantam 352pp £20

For readers whose taste runs to tougher stuff, Stuart MacBride’s latest adventure in psychopathy and gruesomeness fits the bill. He has always specialised in tough, ugly women bullying their honest, well-meaning male subordinates but DI Victoria Montgomery-Porter is a masterpiece. She and DC Edward Reekie are supposed to deliver a dying prisoner to the village of Glenfarach to live out his last days with two hundred other convicts, whose sentences have expired but who are considered too dangerous to be relocated anywhere else. A local team of a few officers and a social worker are supposed to keep them both safe and in order. Amid atrocious weather Edward struggles to keep his boss happy as the inhabitants of Glenfarach start killing each other. MacBride’s descriptions of the effect of snow and ice on poor Edward’s mind and body are highly effective and his interesting sense of humour keeps the revolting behaviour just the right side of unbearable.

The Whispering Muse

By Laura Purcell

Raven 304pp £14.99

This tale of skulduggery during the reign of Queen Victoria is narrated by Jenny Wilcox, a young woman with no parents or money and crushing responsibilities. Her elder brother abandoned her and their younger siblings, absconding not only with the savings needed to pay for the youngest’s essential operation but also the jewellery of Jenny’s then-employer. Now unemployed and needing help, she is easy game for Mrs Dyer, wife of a theatrical impresario, who offers her work as a dresser with a secret commission to spy on the leading actress. Jenny’s thinking and language are surprisingly sophisticated for someone with a hard start in life and lack of education, but they make her a good companion through the emotional and physical ferocity that fills these colourful pages.

Damascus Station

By David McCloskey

Swift 432pp £9.99

Ex-CIA analyst David McCloskey has based this fast-moving first novel on real events in Syria between 2011 and 2013. CIA officer Sam Joseph has two main tasks: to help get revenge for the disappearance of a US ‘diplomat’ in Damascus and recruit a highly placed double agent. Mariam Haddad works for the Syrian government, travelling the world to persuade, threaten and blackmail dissidents into recanting publicly and writing in favour of the regime. Eventually sickened by what she is doing, she succumbs to Sam’s efforts at seduction. They break all the rules and their story shows the impossibility of ever being able to trust anyone in the dirty games of spies and spying. It also shows how Syria has become hell on earth. Educational and horrifying, this novel arrives garlanded with praise from the great and the good of the American security forces.

Other Women

By Emma Flint

Picador 368pp £16.99

Based on a real case from the 1920s, Other Women sees Beatrice Cade, one of the cohort of ‘superfluous women’ left after the Great War, living in a Bloomsbury ladies’ club and working in a secretarial job in London. Feeling despised by the younger members of staff, who are pretty and chatter about clothes and boyfriends, Beatrice falls victim to a charming seducer. The narrative switches between her point of view and that of his long-suffering wife as it powers towards a violent conclusion. Flint re-creates the cold, grime and misery of the period and offers a wholly convincing portrait of the dishonest seducer and his charms, but her Beatrice is so intelligent that it is hard to believe in some aspects of her behaviour.

The Other Half

By Charlotte Vassell

Faber & Faber 368pp £14.99

Charlotte Vassell explores class consciousness, racism, revenge, betrayal, unreciprocated love and outrageous selfishness in this shining first novel about a group of entitled millennials living in London in the 2020s. Central to the group is Rupert Beauchamp, who is insanely rich and about to inherit a baronetcy. His girlfriend-in-chief is Clemmie, an influencer, but he is also besotted with Nell, who was at Oxford with him and who used to love him. Nell is a glorious character: clever, self-aware, ravishing, kind and almost universally loved. Even DCI Caius Beauchamp, who finds Clemmie’s body during a run on Hampstead Heath, falls for Nell during the investigation into her death. He is mixed race and pronounces their shared surname quite differently from Rupert, but, like the rest of the cast, cares too much about his clothes, food and how other people see him. Funny and clever, The Other Half deals with the kinds of characters and love affairs that haven’t changed in decades, but Vassell sets them against a thoroughly modern background and fits them into a story of crimes that spread far beyond the murder of one unhappy influencer.

The Last Woman in the World

By Inga Simpson

Sphere 352pp £14.99

Rachel is an Australian glassblower with an unspecified trauma in her past. She lives alone, supplementing the food she buys with successful foraging. She understands and loves the flora and fauna around her house, and she is terrified of invasion by strangers. One night she is woken by knocking and shouting at her front door. A young woman with a new and ill baby needs her help. As Rachel reluctantly allows Hannah and Isaiah into her house, she learns of a terrible catastrophe that has fallen on Australia. Understanding that the baby needs antibiotics, she takes him and his mother on a tough trek through hostile country to the town where her elder sister practises as a doctor. Both Rachel’s glassblowing and the natural world are described with perception and magnificence, and the slow undoing of her defensiveness, set against the backdrop of natural and man-made chaos, is moving.

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