William Shaw is an expert manipulator of his readers’ emotions. This, his second novel featuring DS Alexandra Cupidi, opens with two teenage tearaways on a stolen moped trying to grab expensive mobile phones from unsuspecting pedestrians. Their subsequent punishment is extreme and with each new torment they provoke readers’ sympathies more and more. Their story is intercut with another one centred on a modern art gallery owned by an unpleasant rich man and his beautiful wife. After visitors complain of a strange smell emanating from one of the gallery’s exhibits, a severed arm is discovered and Cupidi and her team arrive to investigate. The many-stranded drama works, but it is the boys’ story that is the most engaging.
The titular character in Thomas Harris’s latest novel is a former member of FARC, a guerrilla army operating in Colombia, the leaders of which forced her to become a child soldier. Now living in Miami under Temporary Protected Status, Cari does several jobs, one of which involves working as a housekeeper in a luxurious mansion hired out to filmmakers. Her story is involving, alarming and moving, but Harris has fans of Hannibal Lecter to please so he has created a wholly revolting man, Hans-Peter Schneider, to become obsessed with her. This psychopath has come across Cari because he’s after a dead drug lord’s cache of hidden gold, which is rumoured to be buried beneath the mansion she looks after. Hans-Peter is only one of the people looking for it. Many are killed on all sides and an agreeable, wounded detective becomes involved when a bullet links these killings to an old case.
Harris knows how to tell a story. Cari is an attractive woman (perhaps too well adjusted for someone traumatised and brutalised by FARC) and the descriptions of the seascapes and wildlife are excellent. But his interest in grotesque cruelty is off-putting, as is his foray into animal psychology: ‘The crocodile did not dwell on eating humans, but with her prodigious memory for food and the locations of food, she did recall how refreshingly free humans were of hair and feathers and tough hide and horns and beaks and hooves. Unlike a pelican, which is more trouble than it is worth.’ I’m not sure whether Harris is making a point about predators or indulging in whimsy, but either way this kind of thing adds nothing of use.
Mary is in menopausal meltdown. She is a social worker dealing with Glasgow’s worst thugs. Her only child, Jack, has recently moved away from home and her husband is in Australia. Her bosses have instituted a ghastly flexitime regime, which makes a mockery of the unpaid overtime she and her colleagues are compelled to work to keep on top of their caseloads. Dashing from one offender to another, from meetings to prison visits, sweating and self-medicating by downing terrifying quantities of wine, Mary loses it and decides to take revenge on one of her many tormentors. Apart from having a taste for unnecessary synonyms for ‘said’ (such as ‘deadpanned’), FitzGerald is a terrific writer. This novel is a funny, agonising account of one good woman’s battle with rage, guilt, fear, duty and disaster.
Alice Feeney’s second novel provides a twisty account of survival in the face of threats of all kinds. Ciara was born in Ireland after her father was invited to choose between her life and her mother’s. Although he chose her mother’s, the doctors couldn’t save her and he never forgave Ciara. Later in childhood, Ciara was abducted and brought up by her kidnappers. Now unhappily married and working as an actress, she is suffering (unsurprisingly) from impostor syndrome. When her husband disappears after reporting her to the police for beating him up, she becomes a murder suspect. The interweaving of past and present works, and the suspense remains taut until the end of the novel.
Oliver Harris, whose earlier novels featured Nick Belsey of Hampstead CID, has now written a panoramic spy novel. Elliot Kane, a man of many names, talents, lives and lies, receives a deviously concealed message from one of his MI6 colleagues, Joanna Lake, who has disappeared in strange circumstances. He tracks her from a top-secret facility in the UK to Kazakhstan, where the population is demanding democratic reform, Western companies are competing for business opportunities, China looms large across one frontier and Russia across the other, while a variety of dangerous fighters from recent wars jostle for power and profit.
Like most spies, Elliot is multilingual, multitalented and emotionally damaged. He and Joanna loved each other in the past, but there are many physical and emotional demons for him to slay as he searches for her. This is a well-researched, powerful novel about an important and combustible part of the world. It is also about greed, deceit and manipulation on a grand scale. The plot demands close attention from the reader, but the effort is rewarded.
This is an entertaining and disturbing satire of our current preoccupation with victimhood and the ease with which skilful media operators mould public opinion. DCI Michael Matlock is the least ‘woke’ man in the novel, but he tries his best not to offend when investigating a series of inexplicable murders. He dutifully uses ‘zhe’ and ‘zhir’ when referring to a transgender woman, but he is stung when the pathologist, Kate, chastises him for referring to a rape ‘victim’ (she would prefer the term ‘survivor’). When Mike points out that the woman in question is dead, Kate’s reply epitomises the absurdity of the determinedly inoffensive: ‘I’m aware of that. What we need is a new term for survivors of assault who died.’ It is impossible not to laugh at the jokes, while still feeling troubled by both the convincing ignorance of some of the participants and the passions that can be stirred up by the unscrupulous.
DI Tom Thorne, the shabby hero of Mark Billingham’s series, is back in his north London flat now that his lover, Helen, has thrown him out. Missing Helen’s young son, not sure what went wrong, not sure whether he feels liberated or traumatised, Thorne is given a masterclass in deviant relationships when DNA evidence links a suicide in London to a murder in Margate. Driven by a folie à deux, a man and a woman combine to inflict terrible cruelty on their victims. Their activities raise all sorts of questions about power in relationships. Billingham has created a dark world of pain, lightened only here and there by moments of generosity and care. His exploration of relationships makes this novel much more interesting than an ordinary straightforward police procedural.
This month’s slice of domestic noir comes from Cath Weeks, whose heroine and narrator is, unusually, the breadwinner in her marriage. Suzy owns and manages a successful deli in Bath and is married to Mike, a police officer who had to retire after an accident left him disabled. He is now the main carer for their two young children. When Suzy realises that she is being stalked by someone apparently linked to her dead father, Mike is supportive and calls on a couple of his old colleagues to investigate. Details of her childhood make it clear that she is a woman of resilience with the potential for violence. Soon she is tested to the limit and even Mike’s helpfulness and support begin to crack. The account of Suzy’s life as both working mother and good daughter to her own suffering mother provides a vivid picture of the travails of the sandwich generation, and there is a gentleness to the novel, in spite of the cruel deceit that has lain hidden in Suzy’s life.
Parker Bilal’s detective novels set in Egypt were well received, but he has now switched to London for a new series led by DS Cal Drake. He had a tough childhood, growing up on an infamous estate in south London and running with the bad boys, which gives him both an insight into the criminal mind and a wealth of useful contacts. A stint as a soldier saw him fighting in Iraq, and after leaving the army he joined the Met. We meet him near Balham High Road, hungover after his regular poker night and on the way to investigate the deaths of two people discovered on a building site near the river.
Cal’s London is a boiling cauldron rather than a melting pot. Greedy developers exploit the labour of vulnerable illegal immigrants; disaffected youths run riot on estates; Greek gangsters terrify; white supremacists fight for a fantasy England to make them feel better about themselves; mosques are attacked; Muslim converts pick and choose aspects of their new religion to give themselves licence to do terrible things. Cal is joined in his investigation by psychologist Dr Ray Crane, a motorbike-riding woman of Persian descent. Their professional relationship is obviously set to continue in future novels. If those are as well written as this one and present as convincing a picture of the state of the nation, they will be very welcome.