Legal thrillers have often been criticised for inaccuracy, but this one won’t be, having been written by a senior barrister with the help of an established novelist. The lead character, Elliot Rook, has an intriguing background for a QC – he was a violent youth growing up in a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire and was once arrested for fraud. He is preparing for an enormous fraud trial when a friend from the old days is charged with murder and demands his help. Complicating Elliot’s professional life is his eccentric decision to accept a truculent pupil called Zara (silks do not usually have pupils). Both characters are tough, chippy and so appealing that we want their defence of the loathsome murderer to succeed.
Zara is a useful Watson in terms of the developing narrative, although Elliot spends more time explaining legal customs than is quite convincing. But the duo spark off each other entertainingly. Containing a neat piece of misdirection, the novel is thoroughly engaging and it is no surprise to read that the television rights have already been optioned.
An unhappy marriage, superstitious villagers, a put-upon au pair and various misdemeanours and misunderstandings have led three adult siblings to try to make sense of their family history after their father’s death. Edwin is the eldest of the three, brother to twins Seraphine and Danny. Their mother killed herself soon after the twins were born. Seraphine now lives in the family’s country house, while Edwin and Danny share the London one. Feeling like a changeling, she goes in search of people who knew her parents at the time of her birth. The time-slip build-up to the ultimate revelation is effective and the threats are low key enough to convince. But the denouement requires more suspension of disbelief than is quite comfortable.
White Hot Silence is not as affecting as Henry Porter’s last novel, Firefly, but it takes up the story of some of its characters. The new novel opens with Anastasia being kidnapped in Italy, where she has been working with traumatised migrants. Almost at once her husband, Denis Hisami, is arrested for immigration offences in the United States. Paul Samson, gambler and spy, is commissioned to find Anastasia but he is hampered by Denis’s refusal to explain what exactly his worldwide business is, or has been, doing to trigger the kidnap. The ultimate explanation is both horrifying and credible. There is more information and less character-led narrative here than in Firefly. The three-way relationship involving Anastasia and the two men who love her feels more like a device than a reality, which is a pity.
Sarah Hilary’s sixth novel in her series featuring DI Marnie Rome is a study of loss and grief, and the rage and guilt that usually accompany them. Marnie has come a long way on her own emotional journey since her foster brother killed their parents, but her attractive sidekick, DS Noah Jake, is right at the beginning of his. In a previous instalment of the series, his younger brother, Sol, was murdered in prison. Now Noah is hallucinating and feels Sol’s presence at his side, telling him things and asking questions. He is well aware that Sol’s voice comes from his own subconscious and his struggles are painfully realistic.
The case Marnie and Noah have to investigate is the drive-by shooting of a thirteen-year-old girl from a rich neighbourhood, the type of child normally insulated from the almost routine violence faced by children on an adjacent estate. As the two detectives follow every lead they can find, Hilary looks into the causes of the current epidemic of knife crime and the exploitation and brutalisation of vulnerable children. Never Be Broken is an excellent addition to a prize-winning series.
Ostensibly a suspense novel involving the abduction and murder of children, The Whisper Man is also a study of fatherhood. Tom is six-year-old Jake’s only parent now that his mother, Rebecca, has died of a heart attack. Tom is a writer and, like many writers, deals with difficult emotions by recording them as accurately as he can, which allows us access to his fears, resentments and loves. We are also made privy to his loathing of his own father, a violent alcoholic who abandoned Tom and his mother. After Rebecca’s death, Tom and Jake move to a new, smaller house in the village of Featherbank, unaware of its links to a child killer now serving a life sentence. One of the victims was never found and DI Pete Willis has spent the last twenty years trying to work out where the body could be. When another child goes missing in similar circumstances, Willis joins the new investigation in the hope of a resolution – and redemption.
Alex North’s writing is impeccable as he spins out his plot and confronts Tom with the questions all parents must ask. Can I get past what was done to me and so avoid loading my child with the burdens I carry? Can the cycle ever be broken? At once painful and moving, this story feels both real and important.
A cult, whose members live off the grid in Wales, teaches its children that the world outside is full of The Dead and that if they ever leave the cult’s estate they will face disaster. But disaster comes to them. Local police responding to reports of a terrible smell find almost every member dead. One young adult, Romy, has survived along with some of the children, including her two half-siblings. All are taken to hospital and then into care. As an adult, Romy soon finds herself alone in a grim local authority flat situated under Heathrow’s flight path. She knows she has an aunt, Sarah, living among The Dead and searches for her. Social services are also aware of Sarah’s existence and try to persuade her to foster the younger siblings. The narrative moves back and forth between the stories of Sarah and Romy and between the past and the present.
The cult, like every other cult there has ever been, exists to satisfy the founder’s taste for sex on tap with anyone he fancies, but its adherents haven’t understood that and believe all the nonsense they’re taught, despite being highly educated. The siblings’ attempts to understand outsiders’ tastes and habits provide some comedy to lighten the horror. Highly imaginative, full of pace and appealing characters, The Poison Garden is one of the cleverest and most chilling thrillers of recent years.
DCI Harry Virdee is nearby when City Park in Bradford is bombed. He is off-duty, spending time with his mother and his four-year-old son. All three escape injury. Soon news reaches him that an even bigger bomb has been hidden in one of the city’s 110 mosques by far-right extremists, who have threatened to detonate it if anyone leaves any of the mosques before the leaders of a group of radical Islamists have been found and handed over. Harry is a Sikh, but his wife is Muslim and she is locked inside the city’s biggest mosque with a thousand others.
He is forced into action by the home secretary, Tariq Islam, himself a Muslim, who makes an appeal Harry cannot refuse. As he searches for the violent Islamists on the outside, and his wife does what she can within the locked mosque, his parents face their own struggle. They rejected him when he insisted on marrying a Muslim. Now they have to choose what matters most. The action scenes are exciting, the struggle of Harry’s parents is moving, the moral questions Harry must answer are important and Dhand’s portrait of 21st-century Britain is terrifying.
Kate Atkinson, who has won many awards for her literary fiction, has now written her fifth crime novel about private investigator Jackson Brodie. His own taste in crime fiction, she tells us, is for ‘the cheerfully unrealistic’. She gives us cheerfulness in the humour here but there is plenty of grimness, if not originality, here too, particularly in the Yorkshire seaside towns she uses as a background for her stories about organised crime, sex trafficking and paedophilia.
Jackson is introduced on page one, but he plays no part in the novel’s major case until halfway through, spending his time collecting evidence about an unfaithful husband and trying to be a good father to his adolescent son, Nathan. While he is thus occupied, Atkinson takes a leisurely stroll through the lives of four golfing friends and their families. When the most engaging of them, Crystal Holroyd, commissions Jackson to find out who is following her, the two parts of the novel mesh. It is beautifully written, with the unfolding narrative revealed from many different points of view, but there is a tone of contempt for both the ignorant and the ‘elite’ that will appeal to some readers more than others.