A private plane takes off on a trip from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. On board are two rich couples, one bodyguard, one child and a failed, broke painter called Scott Burroughs, who has taken the fancy of one of the rich wives. It’s a routine, uninteresting journey – until the plane plunges into the sea. The painter and the child alone survive, after an epic swim to land. Scott wakes up to find himself famous, but also under investigation by the FBI, tabloid journalists and the relatives of the child whose life he saved. This is an unequivocally excellent book, a literary novel, a thriller, a whodunit and a meditation about life and love. Each paragraph deserves a rereading, but is too exciting to let one pause.
Having myself published a novel called The Mystery Writer, I felt a frisson of fellowship on receiving The Crime Writer, the more so on realising that Dawson’s book, like mine, mixes historical fact with fiction. The main character in Dawson’s book is based on the notoriously gay, notoriously sinister crime writer Patricia Highsmith. The action takes place in the mid-1960s, when Highsmith was living in a cottage in East Soham in Suffolk and writing her novel A Suspension of Mercy. A pushy young woman inveigles herself into Pat’s life, initially in the guise of a journalist. She probes away at Pat’s privacy, with Pat feebly protesting: ‘Leave the novels alone – the unconscious bits should remain unconscious.’ But Pat also has a conscious secret to guard. She has crossed the line that very few people cross, turning imagined deeds into reality. You do not need to be a passionate Highsmith fan to admire this beautifully written and elegant novel, but I think it will particularly appeal to those who have read her books and know something about her life; they should recognise many of the allusions and ideas.
This thoughtful and knowledgeable historical novel is set in Finland in 1938. It is a troubled country, scarred by a brutal civil war and scared by expansionist Germany. Among its residents are the members of the Wednesday Club – all men and all old friends of Claes Thune, a lawyer. Since the last meeting, Thune has taken on a secretary, Mrs Wiik. She is trying to put behind her the dreadful experiences she underwent in a detention camp during the civil war two decades ago. But the man who raped her back then unexpectedly reappears in her life. He is a member of the Wednesday Club and a friend of her boss. Not recognising her, he embarks on a quiet, considerate wooing of the woman he once brutalised. Geopolitical and other public considerations, nicely balanced with private anxieties, make this an interesting and instructive book.
A man with extraordinary powers believes he is a normal person until a stranger tells him he’s not. A young woman with a personality disorder is forced to leave the job she loves, working as a detective in the Metropolitan Police, and redeem herself by serving in a bog-standard provincial police force. And a young female doctor is exposed to brutal blackmail after her mother’s unexpected death. These ingredients, stirred together, add up to a clever, easy-to-read mystery, firmly set in middle-class suburbia. Unusually for a crime novel, Spare Me the Truth comes with a reading list of books with such titles as Controlling the Human Mind: The Technologies of Political Control and The Encyclopaedia of Mind-Control. The actual possibilities are even more frightening than this tense thriller.
This is the first in a promised series of six Victorian detective stories featuring an amateur sleuth, Mrs Laetitia Rodd. She is a clergyman’s impoverished widow who lives in Hampstead with one servant, whom she treats as an equal, and a barrister brother who recommends her to people who need discreet enquiries to be made. In this case a rich and titled man needs to know more about the woman his son intends to marry. Rodd goes to their home in Lincolnshire after taking a job as the new governess, in which role, suspended uneasily between drawing room and servants’ hall, she is well placed to ask questions. At the end, Saunders, who is herself a journalist and reviewer as well as a novelist, explains that this book was inspired by David Copperfield, and in particular by one detail, the fate of Little Em’ly, the fisherman’s daughter who elopes with Steerforth.
The plot of this book takes the form of a fiendishly complicated square dance covering the whole of Europe, as people who are in hiding – some for good reasons, some not – flee from airport to airport. While the fugitives might have the sophisticated ability to change appearance, they must contend with the electronic magic that makes it possible to track and follow them. This relocation business, overseen by Nick Miller and an unconventional team of helpers, is one part of the story. But when Nick interferes with the attempted murder of a witness in hiding on the Isle of Man, he inadvertently sets off a chain reaction that puts all those he has been protecting in real danger. Long Time Lost is an exciting story, if a very unlikely one, and it is most instructive about the art of changing faces and the tiny details that give us all away: ‘When you argue you lead with the chin/you constantly tuck your hair behind your ears/the raised eyebrows, the fidgety lips, the way you lean in…’ After reading that, I was statue-still for at least ten minutes and have remained self-conscious ever since.
S K Tremayne has written an updated version of Rebecca (or so I suppose: du Maurier’s book is not actually mentioned). The solitary Rachel has married tall, dark and handsome David and gone to live with him and his small son in his ancestral mansion on the cliffs of west Cornwall. Rachel spends a lot of time snooping in – or exploring – dusty basements and unused rooms. As she digs into David’s past she becomes increasingly suspicious of his actions. What had caused his first wife’s death? In fact, is she really dead at all? Why does eight-year-old Jamie warn Rachel that she will be dead by Christmas? As a stand-alone heroine-in-peril thriller it is not quite thrilling enough; as a version of Rebecca it is not quite heartfelt enough. But the many who enjoyed the pseudonymous Tremayne’s previous book, The Ice Twins, an atmospheric but unpleasant tale, will love this.