Ostland is based on a true story. Georg Heuser’s career began as an officer in the criminal police in Berlin in the 1930s, and the first half of the story follows his search for a murderer, during which Heuser shows himself to be a clever, efficient detective. But this is Hitler’s Germany. Halfway through the book he is sent to Minsk, not knowing what he has been sent there to do. Heuser always obeys orders and, it being by now 1941, the reader knows only too well what those orders will be. At first he is horrified that he is expected to take part in, and then oversee, the massacre of Jews. But obedience is his creed, so he does what he is told and it is not long before the task becomes routine. Heuser develops a pride in his efficiency: one shot per victim, dozens a day, hundreds a week. The narrative is interspersed with chapters showing Heuser and his colleagues on trial for war crimes in 1959, for by then Germans ‘have created a country in which even war criminals are treated fairly under law’. In his account of how a once decent man turns into a monster, David Thomas has produced a thought-provoking description of an ordinary person’s capacity to do evil. His measured description of the mechanisms of the Holocaust and the moral quandaries of its aftermath turn a gripping thriller into something much more – a fascinating, important book about a tragic subject.
Germany again, this time not in the actual past but an alternate present in which the Berlin Wall still stands and the Stasi dominate East Germany. Martin Wegener, a detective in the People’s Police, is called in to investigate the death of an unknown man whose body was found in the forest, hanging from a gas pipe. Wegener is disillusioned and disappointed, a Philip Marlowe-type character whose girlfriend has left him to further her own dazzling career and whose former boss and mentor disappeared without trace some years back. Wegener is beset by treachery both professional and personal. We see through his eyes a collapsing East Berlin, where the powerful and corrupt live in luxury while everybody else suffers from dirt, discomfort and perpetual fear. There is a murderer and a terrorist organisation to be detected, bombs go off or threaten to, conspirators meet in the suitably dingy surroundings of an abandoned fairground and others are incarcerated in secret prisons. This hideous world is vividly imagined and described. Plan D is not exactly an uplifting read but it is a very good one.
All Denise Mina’s books combine good reading with interesting sociological insights. This, Mina’s 11th novel, picks up the story of Rose Wilson, who, as a teenager, became intimate with the underside of Glasgow life until one day on impulse she committed murder. A cynical and experienced lawyer who was at her trial makes the uncharacteristic decision to try to save her; but can it be done? Later we see Rose again, grown-up and conscientious in her work as a nanny. In crime fiction the past always catches up with those who try to escape it, and the secrets of Rose’s early years predictably threaten to ruin her new life. Meanwhile police detective Alex Morrow is on the case, with part of her mind always returning home to her baby twins. Mina has a social worker’s understanding of life at the bottom of society and a fine writer’s ability to bring her characters to life.
There’s a lot of motherhood in this book: toddlers toddle, bumps proudly protrude, pregnancy kits change colour. It begins with a naval officer about to leave for a long tour of duty. His first wife is dead; his second wife, heavily pregnant, is still a full-time social worker and in charge of her toddler stepsons. No wonder she needs a nanny. But does she need this nanny, who has lied about her name, experience and references? The cleverly plotted story about murdered mothers and stillborn babies subtly misdirects the reader, so that the denouement comes as a genuine surprise. Its claustrophobic, ultra-female atmosphere reminded me of being in a maternity ward back in the days when new mothers were kept in hospital for a week or two – hot, uncomfortable and reduced to sharing intimacies with strangers about bodies and babies.
The husband and wife team who write as Nicci French produced a dozen successful ‘domestic’ thrillers and then relaunched themselves with a new series featuring Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who lives and practises in north London. In the first two books she worked with the police, but she has now become persona non grata in official circles. That hardly matters, because DCI Karlsson can’t do without her, and calls on her to help solve the murder of a local mother of three. The authors are very knowledgeable about psychotherapy and, as is their usual practice, create convincing motives and behaviour for each character and set the scene with careful detail. But Frieda herself is turning into something of a drag: gloomy and enigmatic and just not a sufficiently interesting character to keep a – or at any rate this – reader’s attention for five hundred pages. This is not Nicci Gerrard and Sean French’s most successful book.
Crime fiction has branched out in so many directions that it is quite unusual to find a story set in the present day which also exhibits the qualities that used to exemplify the traditional English detective novel. Martin Edwards, an expert in that genre, updates the convention. In this new addition to his Lake District series, he makes all the characters real, credible and, in the cases of the heroine, DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the cold case review team, and the slightly less heroic local historian Daniel Kind, highly sympathetic. The two work together in a case concerning women whose battered bodies and disfigured faces have been found in a local beauty spot. Writing with scrupulous exactness, but sparing his readers too many disgusting details, he supplies fair clues, an agreeable setting and a good, gripping, credible tale, which I highly recommend.
This book is seven hundred closely printed pages long. I will candidly admit that on opening it I didn’t expect to read every word, but several hours later, I realised that I had not been able to put it down. It is a ‘high concept thriller’ in which a fanatical Islamist enemy of the West almost succeeds in carrying out an ingenious plan to destroy America. It is also a murder mystery, an illuminating account of contemporary international politics, and a study of an unusual man. The contest between the hero and a dangerous, deluded nutter jumps between the Oval Office and a ruined village in Afghanistan, with long stopovers in Germany, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Gaza and Turkey. The narrative is thrilling: the tension tightens with action then relaxes into back-story diversions or flashbacks, before returning to the terrifying present. Every scene, object, emotion and action is carefully and convincingly described. The author has apparently already had several careers – he has been a film producer and screenwriter, a journalist and political correspondent. Now he has produced an excellent thriller which, as a first novel, is really remarkable.