The first work Isabelle Grey has written as V B Grey is as unlike a traditional crime novel as it’s possible to be while still dealing with the essential matters of the genre: transgression, treachery, retribution and redemption. Delia Maxwell is a star of the early 1960s, a superb singer with a magnificent wardrobe of glittering, big-skirted dresses. When she disappears on the eve of what would have been her greatest triumph, her manager asks an old wartime comrade, Frank Landry, to find out what’s going on. Landry served in the RAF during the war and then in Malaya in the 1950s, and his experiences have left him with what we would now call PTSD. He is a self-contained man with a convincingly throttled turn of phrase and a pronounced impulse to protect. The narrative ranges back to the war and is full of allusions to the films of the 1940s and 1950s. In one charming scene, Frank sits alone in Delia’s flat in the pouring rain, just as Dana Andrews sits in Gene Tierney’s apartment in Laura. Clever, generous and imaginative, this is an excellent crime novel.
Joe McKee is dying, sent out of a Northern Irish hospital into the reluctant but dutiful care of his stepdaughter. Married with a young baby, she has to contend with Joe’s neediness and controlling nature and the aggression of his natural daughter. As the two women and their families manoeuvre around each other during Joe’s last days, crimes from the past are revealed. This is a disturbing tale of cruelty and deception.
Eve Smith’s first novel is a dystopian thriller that is both terrifying and topical. It is set only a few years in the future, in the aftermath of a tuberculosis pandemic, as a result of which antibiotic resistance has become such a problem that severe social restrictions have been put in force. Anyone who has not signed an assisted-death directive faces dying without medical help. Grim though the first option is, the alternative is worse. Lily, a retired scientist, knows a lot about antibiotic resistance; she also has secrets to hide. Coming at a time when the world is scrambling for a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, this novel makes for alarming reading.
Cry Baby takes Tom Thorne back to 1996, a time before his first appearance in Mark Billingham’s debut novel, Sleepyhead. Tom is a detective sergeant, reluctant to take his inspector’s exams for a range of contradictory but convincing reasons and yet to meet the eccentric pathologist Phil Hendricks, who will become his best friend. He is looking into the kidnapping of a boy, who may be dead. Keiron was playing with Josh on the edge of Highgate Wood under the not-so-watchful eye of Josh’s mother, Maria, when he disappeared. Many crime writers have used this parental nightmare in their fiction, but Billingham’s version is one of the best. His re-creation of the 1990s works well and there is deep humanity in his account of each character’s emotional journey. The ending, in which we see Tom Thorne as he is today, is heart-wrenching.
The background to this engrossing psychological crime novel is the gentrification of the area south of Wandsworth Common now known to estate agents as Trinity Fields. Ailsa and Tom have moved into a house they have renovated from roof space to dug-out basement. Their next-door neighbour, Verity, has lived there for fifty years and her presence is a mixed blessing. Her house is decrepit and her garden a tip, but she is the only person who can reach their son, Max, who has learning difficulties. When tragedy strikes, Verity provides support. Told from her point of view, the story plays with our sympathies and explores the boundary between devotion and resentment that exists in relationships of all kinds.
This international thriller could have been written to comfort a friendless man in a dead-end job with a flat marriage and children who whine. It is full of brave men who would happily die for each other, a heroic child and an icy Russian who turns out to be incredibly sexy – and available. A rich banker is abducted on the Westway in London. His employer sends for the only man who might be able to find him: an Englishman who has retired from the French Foreign Legion. Full of thrills, this will take the bored and frustrated out of their humdrum lives.
In this, Claire Askew’s third novel, DI Helen Birch investigates the disappearance of an elderly couple in Edinburgh. The more she discovers about their marriage, the more terrible it seems. At the same time she has to deal with her brother, who is in prison, and their estranged father’s attempts to get back in touch with them both. The novel includes plenty of credible crimes and it throws light on the way women’s expectations of themselves and their partners have changed in the last half-century. There is a warmth in the narrative that makes Helen’s various struggles engaging.