At the centre of Sarah Hilary’s first stand-alone novel is Nell Ballard, who ran away from her foster home with her best friend, Joe, who is supremely beautiful and an addict. They were living on the streets when Joe was picked up by a rich-looking, much older woman. He went off with her, without a thought for Nell, who now has to find a way to live without him or money or any kind of support. What follows is partly narrated by Nell and partly in the third person from the point of view of Meagan, the foster mother from whom she ran away. This beautifully written exploration of guilt and blame is both an engrossing story of one young woman’s fight to survive and an indictment of all those incompetent, selfish, chaotic, damaged adults who dare to bring into the world children they cannot begin to care for – and of those officials who, well-meaning or otherwise, take them away and put them into a system for which ‘care’ is a hopelessly inappropriate name.
Crime fiction takes many different forms, but Phosphate Rocks is the first example I have read of a combined memoir, chemistry lesson and detective story. After leaving Cambridge, Fiona Erskine worked for five years in a Scottish fertiliser factory – she was its first female engineer – and this fictional account of the discovery of a body in the decommissioned factory includes scenes and characters from her time there. The hero is based on her mentor, foreman John Gibson, who is consulted by the investigating detective. She presents him with ten objects found with the body and he provides information about each. This helps the detective to establish a date for the death and, eventually, a name for the body. The book is an education in many ways, not just in the chemicals used in fertilisers and how they were discovered, transported and adapted, but also in the hard-to-acquire skills needed to run a business. Erskine makes it clear how much we all depend for our safety on the professionalism of those who work with dangerous materials, from the most academic of scientists to the lowliest members of the team. She also shows how easy it is for the cocky, the under-informed and the lazy to make mistakes that end up costing vast amounts of money and more. This is an original and fascinating combination of memoir and crime novel.
This disturbing novel has many links with the real case of Mary Bell, who killed two small boys in 1968, when she was eleven. Nancy Tucker’s imaginary killer, Chrissie, is only eight when she strangles the younger Steven. The first-person narrative is split between Chrissie’s life at the time, as the police try to identify the killer, and her re-emergence from prison after serving her sentence as Julia, mother of Molly. Deeply sad as well as illuminating, the novel is an examination of need and rage, hunger and the contempt felt by the starving for the fat, good and bad parenting, and the stories children tell themselves to make their trauma endurable. Sprinkled throughout are just enough examples of kindness to make the experience of reading this impressive, distressing novel bearable.
Jatinder Baxi, known as Jack, is a Sikh ex-con and owner of a small shop in Bradford. In defiance of his religion, he drinks as he battles unhappy memories of his dead wife. One evening, a local police officer, also a Sikh, bangs on his door, demanding to be let in and told everything Jack knows about a man whose name is completely strange to him. So begins an adventure that takes Jack back to his criminal past and on to India in the company of a young woman who has also been a target of the same aggressive police officer. Revelation follows revelation, and Jack is faced with appalling violence as he gradually begins to understand what is going on. Clearly, his journey will end in either death or redemption. This is a fast-paced, powerful, eye-opening novel with plenty to say about the damage done to India by the British Empire and a lot more about the cruelty, violence and corruption that are apparently rife there today. There are also some warm touches, including the delightful relationship between Jack and the ambitious young man who becomes his driver.
Imran Mahmood, a barrister of twenty-five years’ standing, has written a clever and troubling novel about a man who has been living on the streets for many years. Before his fall into homelessness, he had everything: highly paid work and a beloved girlfriend with whom he planned to buy a house. Now, battling to keep warm and relatively dry, finding food in dustbins and trying to avoid the violence prevalent on the streets, he takes shelter in a house with an unlocked door. There, hiding behind a sofa, aware that the smell of his long-unwashed body may give away his presence, he witnesses a man killing a young woman. Later that night, he is arrested for assault. Assuming the victim the police mention is the woman he saw murdered, he starts to talk and lands himself in serious trouble. Elegantly constructed, educational, involving and moving, this is a terrific novel.
After achieving success with conventional crime novels such as Sirens, Joseph Knox now offers an ingenious metafictional work about a cold case involving the disappearance of Zoe Nolan. Seven years on, her twin, Kimberley, their parents and Zoe’s friends and flatmates from her first year at Manchester University are giving interviews to Evelyn Mitchell, a struggling writer who has been inspired by Joseph Knox, the real Knox’s fictional alter ego, to produce a book about the case. Evelyn sends Joseph chunks of work in progress for his comments. These provide an excellent account of Evelyn’s investigation, the failings of the police and the histories and feelings of the undergraduates most closely involved with Zoe. This is one of the most engaging cold-case novels I have read.
Clare Mackintosh has an enviable talent for creating credible families and putting them in enough jeopardy to make the story fly while stirring up emotions of all kinds. Mina is a flight attendant, separated from a secretive and devious husband. She is also adoptive mother to five-year-old Sophia, who has an attachment disorder. Mina has to leave Sophia for the first nonstop flight to Sydney, during which she is coerced into putting the whole planeload of passengers at risk. Mackintosh gives us more of Mina’s past and personality as the action explodes and then, at the end, provides a stunning twist. To add to the many pleasures, she offers a huge helping of outrage at the antics of Mina’s antagonists.
Another planeload of passengers is put at risk in T J Newman’s first novel. In this case, it is the pilot, Bill Hoffman, who is coerced into risking the safety of the plane and his passengers’ lives. The account of his battle to save both his family and his passengers is full of the kind of authentic detail that comes from personal experience. Newman worked for Virgin America and Alaska Airlines for a decade, and her novel provides a necessary counterweight to the idea that flight attendants are trained simply to be ‘trolley dollies’. The sense of loyalty and family feeling that exists within a good flight crew is well communicated.
Computer-operated ‘smart homes’ have given gaslighters a whole new arsenal of weapons with which to destabilise and terrify victims. Here, artist Lauren and her husband, Joe, have moved into the smart cottage in Suffolk that they have restored. When she starts hearing and seeing things that should not exist, he tells her she is having a recurrence of the cannabis-induced psychotic episode that spoiled her student years. Such is the nightmare of fear and suspicion in which she has to live that she begins to believe it herself. Egan Hughes provides a generous list of possible suspects. This kind of is-she-mad-or-is-she-being-deliberately-tormented? novel stands or falls on the character of the victim. Lauren is appealing enough to generate plenty of sympathy and her fight against the general assumption that she is mentally ill is convincing.
This classy, powerful novel is set in Atlanta, Georgia, and tells the story of two sisters who have struggled to survive a terrifying childhood. One has become a lawyer, married a good man and has a daughter; the other is a heroin addict who sometimes works as a dishonest but devoted assistant to a vet. When the lawyer is forced to take on the defence of a psychopathic rapist, the little stability they have is wrecked. More details emerge about their past and both are put at dreadful risk. The actions they take are indefensible but utterly comprehensible. Set against the background of Covid-19, Slaughter’s account of what you could call long trauma is compelling and her portrayal of the lives of the have-nots of America is shocking.