Between 1931 and 1989, when he died, Georges Simenon published seventy-five novels featuring the police officer Jules Maigret. They are crime novels, but the detection is usually quite perfunctory because Simenon was far more interested in his characters and the world they inhabited than in crime itself. The books are short, even by the standards of the time when he was writing: sixty to seventy thousand words was the average length of a crime novel in pre-computer days (now it is more like 160,000). The French they are written in is simple and elegant, which makes them an ideal teaching medium. I have known people who taught themselves French by reading Simenon’s novels. But for those who prefer them in English, Penguin Books embarked in 2013 on a programme of publishing new translations of all the Maigret novels. Maigret’s Secret is a very characteristic example, in which Maigret, at a dinner party, talks about a case he can’t forget: the trial and execution of a man who may have been innocent.
This book is set in 1986, three years before the Berlin Wall came down, and, as it happens, the year I first went to Berlin with a commission to write a travel article about it. Obviously the tourist board kept me away from certain areas (that is, the whole of East Berlin), but the Wall was a massive visitor attraction; there were even viewing platforms from which journalists could glimpse the east. Jack Grimwood describes it very vividly in this intriguing thriller. Its hero is a major in British intelligence. He is sent to bring back to England a spy and traitor (Burgess and Maclean-style) who says he wants to go home. Things go wrong and the hero finds himself on the run in East Germany and – far worse – a captive there. However, this being fiction, he manages to escape and no doubt will live to fight another day.
The hero of this novel, Kit Carradine, like Charles Cumming himself, is the author of several well-received spy novels. But Carradine (let’s hope unlike his creator) has become jaded. He is no longer excited by his imaginary secret agents and their adventures. So it is a real thrill for him when he is sought out by a representative of MI6 and asked to lend a hand. He attends a literary festival in Morocco, where he meets people who are (or say they are) secret service operatives from both sides of an unacknowledged war. Being on his own, Carradine makes decisions without recourse to authority, ‘off his own bat’, and this, of course, leads to disaster. He follows the trail of a mysterious fugitive called Lara and finds himself becoming obsessed by this dangerous woman. ‘At no point had it occurred to him to stop and to think and to wonder if he should stay in the game.’ Credibly obsessed and convincingly foolish, Carradine is an interesting character in a pleasingly original spy story.
William Heming is a highly respected pillar of his small-town community. He never goes out without his opera glasses (an indispensable tool for a well-equipped estate agent), through which he can see a property’s every detail. In his home, hanging out of sight of chance visitors, are copies of every key to every property he has ever handled. The keys are in use: William lets himself in to empty houses so often that he (and the reader) almost believes he has a right to. He does no harm, does not steal, and even sometimes does a bit of tidying up. This is all creepy, but only mildly so, until he becomes obsessed with a woman whose attic he regularly hides in to hear her talking and laughing in the rooms below. Then – for this is published as a crime novel – there is a murder, investigated quite leisurely and actually the least interesting part of the story. Hogan writes lucid, pleasant prose, and it is a good read (even if, in my experience, agents and conveyancers always insist that house buyers change the locks).
It is no surprise that a BBC correspondent should write knowledgeably, but this action-packed thriller has a rare authority and authenticity. Frank Gardner’s second novel begins in an underground laboratory in which the Iranians are trying to build nuclear weapons. The story then flips between Tehran and villages, monasteries and hideouts of all kinds, as well as safe meeting places in the Middle East and the corridors and meeting rooms of official London. Ultimatum is a long book with a large cast of characters and a great many happenings. One suspects there is a veracity to even the most horrible episodes. Torture and murder seem to be an inherent part of this secret world.
This book is as much a comedy as a crime novel. It is set in Brighton’s police headquarters, where Inspector Steine has had a peaceful life since the majority of Brighton’s criminals wiped one another out in the ‘Middle Street Massacre’ in 1951. He is not best pleased when a new recruit, Constable Twitten, insists on investigating real crimes. First of all there is a series of burglaries. Next, Twitten is present in the theatre – indeed, sitting beside the victim – when a venomous critic is shot dead. There follows lots of interesting detection for Twitten and annoying interruptions for Steine. Lynne Truss is a national treasure, and this is a gentle, complicated, humorous tale.