The third book in Holly Watt’s Casey Benedict series has her journalist heroine pursuing a story about antibiotic resistance and a potentially world-beating new drug. Her editor has taken her off investigations and made her cover the health brief for a colleague on maternity leave. Bored and frustrated, Casey is sent to interview a patient with cystic fibrosis and is soon sucked into a life-and-death chase that takes her to the United States and to southern Africa. On the way, she learns a lot about how some drug companies operate: for example, dumping their out-of-date products in Africa on the pretence of sending help after disasters, while gaining a tax and reputational advantage. Watt writes with sparky intelligence, generating ample pace and adding emotional weight to her story with the heartbreaking sadness of children brought up with lies and secrets and absent parents. She also leaves readers with one tough moral choice to ponder.
Rabbit Hole is a tender, sad, intriguing investigation of two murders and a woman struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Alice, who is a sectioned patient in a north London mental hospital, is a clever, funny, sassy woman with symptoms including paranoia, blackouts, terrible sleep and an inability to work out what is real and what is a product of her disorder. The one thing that keeps her going is the thought of her previous career in the Metropolitan Police, but her memories of the bloody death of her partner seem to be at the root of her illness. When one of her fellow patients is found dead, she applies her investigative skills to the various suspects she sees around her on the ward. Interviews with current Met detectives and a forensic psychologist are woven into the account of Alice’s own activities, as are visits from her distressed father and her ex-boyfriend. Billingham’s picture of the ward and its staff is full of humanity, leaving us with a clear sense that this kind of illness could affect any of us, and the story offers an excellent twist. He gets better and better.
Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Dying Day features Detective Inspector Persis Wadia and a rare and valuable copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which has been stolen from the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Persis, who lives with her bookseller father, struggles with the general misogynist view that women cannot have careers, as well as her aunt’s determination to marry her off to a suitable man. Persis had an unfortunate secret affair with a man she loved, who dumped her, and now has a significant friendship with a socially clumsy Englishman, but she is determined to be her own woman and conform to no one else’s idea of how she should live. She is a great character. Her hunt for the ultimate villains presents plenty of history and throws up difficult choices.
Set in Venice during the devastating flood of 1966, this literary crime novel deals with Frankie, a novelist who had great success with her first book but is now suffering writer’s block. An adverse review added to other stresses – and too much alcohol – led her to punch a mocking woman at a grand hotel in London. Her best friend took her to a private clinic and has now lent her half a palazzo in Venice so that she can rebuild her life and work. Her recovery is hampered by unmistakable sounds of someone or something moving around the supposedly uninhabited other half of the palazzo, as well as by encounters with a much younger woman, Gilly, who seems to know too much about her. Gilly presents herself as a devoted fan of Frankie’s first novel and takes her to a horrible party, friendly bars and excellent restaurants. Questions about Frankie’s mental health and Gilly’s motives and intentions propel this narrative of paranoia and guilt forward amid evocative descriptions of the glories of Venice and the worsening weather.
Since the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury and the ham-fisted attempt by the two men involved to claim that they were merely sightseeing, Russian criminal acts overseas have received more attention than ever before. This short and compelling novel looks behind the actual events to the kinds of characters who might be involved in such cases, exploring the subject through the experiences of Professor Kalitin, inventor of Neophyte, a fatal poison that leaves no trace in the victim’s body. We first hear his name as two Russian generals are discussing the fallout from the successful assassination of a defector to the West. If, as they suspect, Kalitin (now also a defector) will be one of the experts called in by the local authorities to explain the death, the generals want him killed with his own poison before he can damage them and their government. The narrative then moves back in time to the past lives of both Kalitin and his would-be assassin, laying bare the wholly destructive, intensely cruel nature of the Russian regime. Sergei Lebedev writes beautifully about the horrors involved, the emotions of the individuals and the landscapes in which they operate. The translation is smooth and unobtrusive. This is a most impressive account of human and state depravity and one man’s indefatigable attempts to do good at whatever cost to himself.
Charlie Parker, the main character in John Connolly’s crime series, plays only a small part in this revenge thriller. The lead roles belong to his associates Louis and Angel, who are on the trail of some Serbian veterans of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The Vuksan brothers have murdered one of Louis and Angel’s international criminal colleagues, De Jaager, having made him watch the torture and death of two women. De Jaager had himself killed a brutal assassin linked to the Serbians, and their culture of machismo meant that he could not be left unpunished. Moving from their victim’s home city of Amsterdam to Belgrade, Vienna and the United States, this novel is well researched and offers an education in the connections between war, terrorism, governments and organised crime. There are welcome glimmers of humour and a warming affection develops between Louis and Angel in what is an extremely male novel. Many of the female characters are much less vivid than the male ones, except for a talking ghost and a homicidal witch. The prose is surprisingly formal, and it provides an effective background to the lives and thoughts of men who believe their own sadism, greed and criminality are more or less noble because, to them, no one in the world matters as much as they do.
Charlotte Philby’s third novel brings to a kind of end the story she began in her first, Part of the Family (2019). This one opens with a prologue entitled ‘London, the day Anna dies’. It goes on, while skipping from one point of view to another and from various, sometimes vague, moments in the past to the present, to illuminate the reasons for Anna Witherall’s death and the other deaths that follow hers. Everyone involved in the story, even in the most peripheral ways, has secrets to hide and sins to expiate, and most of them are spying on at least some of the others. Philby, however, is in no hurry to clarify exactly who is doing what to whom and why. At the heart of the trilogy is a dodgy international business, which is being investigated by MI6. The action moves between London, the Greek islands and the south of France, giving alluring glimpses of the high life in beautiful surroundings as well as convincing accounts of the hellish relationships of the characters involved. If Philby’s intention is to show how hard it must be to keep control of what is going on when you live in a muddle of suspicion, spying, fear and doubt, she succeeds brilliantly.
At first sight, this appears to be a cosy novel about a trio of septuagenarian acquaintances from a London Pilates class fantasising about killing a thug who has been terrorising a young woman they met in a local cafe. But notwithstanding the gentle opening tone, Stopps incorporates some pretty gritty stuff. The thug’s victim is a ‘looked after child’, who has been tricked and blackmailed into working as a prostitute for some vile pimps, and it becomes clear that the three older women have faced abusers of their own in the past. If the actual murder plot they hatch is cartoonish, their unhappy lives are more credible, and the developing relationships between them and their protégée have charm.
The Tode family of Tode Hall are in full fig in Daisy Waugh’s latest romp. Yet another version of A Prance to the Music of Time is being filmed at the house. The heatwave has left the lawns an unappetising mustard colour, which bothers the American producer. But he has the handsomest man in England – Oliver Mellors, the Tode Hall gamekeeper – acting in his film, along with a couple of Oscar winners. Also on the scene are the usual cast of bizarre Todes, including Nicola, who, though virtually illiterate, is writing a self-help book. Tricky relationships, resentments, jealousies, professional angst, murder and the ghost of old Lady Tode all give Waugh’s brand of literary and social mockery its particular flavour.
Michael Ridpath, author of bestselling financial thrillers and a series of crime novels set in Iceland, has now written this non-fiction book. Drawing on the impressive research he carried out for his novels, he describes the landscape, culture, history and people of this most extraordinary country, showing exactly why he has come to love it. He also provides an excellent guide to the best way of preparing to set a novel in a place you do not yet know.