Many crime writers are lucky enough to have generous help from serving and past police officers as they research their novels. Graham Bartlett, a former chief superintendent, has no need of such help. His first novel has all the authenticity that comes from personal experience. Here is the frustration of hands-on officers dealing with deskbound bosses and politicians demanding both huge budget cuts and more effective policing, as well as despair at the activities of the drug dealers and violent criminals who evade justice and make life hell for honest citizens. The problems become personal for the fictional chief superintendent of the Brighton force when his son, a successful footballer, is found stabbed to death. His professional life is made even more difficult than usual by a bunch of vigilantes who offer a parallel service to locals fed up with the slowness of the police response to their calls. This is a fast-moving, well-structured depiction of a service in crisis, full of great characters and shocking events.
Journalist Stephanie Merritt has taken a break from her successful historical-novel series featuring Giordano Bruno to write this standalone thriller involving a dysfunctional house party at a chateau in the Dordogne. Three university friends and their partners, along with Jo, widow of Oliver, the fourth member of the original quartet, gather at Château Henri to celebrate the twenty-first wedding anniversary of Cressida and Arlo. Arlo, the grandest of the group, is now a tech billionaire. Leo is a BAFTA-winning producer and Max a successful journalist. Oliver was a barrister and Jo has always felt out of place in this rich, high-achieving group. En route to the chateau, Max is delayed; his much younger girlfriend, Storm, arrives ahead of him, which causes all kinds of trouble, culminating in kidnap and murder. Merritt writes well: Jo’s reflections on her marriage and relationships with the other members of the group are convincing, and although the reasons for Storm’s activities become clear quite early, the unfolding story carries enough emotional weight to make that irrelevant.
G W Shaw, who writes the Alexandra Cupidi series under the name William Shaw, has set this timely thriller on an oligarch’s yacht in the Caribbean. Stepan Pirumov has done something to annoy his ultimate boss and has instructed his wife and their London-based daughter to meet him on the yacht in the hope of escaping retribution. Zina brings her latest boyfriend, London-based musician Kai. Like most of his predecessors, Kai has been picked to annoy the oligarch, but he has a lot more about him than anyone expects. Kai finds the ostentatious yacht and its owner unappealing, but when someone starts killing people aboard he discovers unexpected reserves of courage and resourcefulness. Even so, he is outclassed by another character. The two of them are well drawn and attractive, and there is plenty of action to keep thrill-seekers reading.
Chris Pavone, a former publisher, takes us to Lisbon in the company of Ariel Pryce, who wakes up in her expensive hotel room to find that her new and much younger husband is no longer with her. When it becomes clear that he has disappeared and won’t – or can’t – answer his phone, Ariel goes to the police. Finding no help there, she turns to the American embassy. CCTV recordings give some clues, as does a note found under the bed by a chambermaid, but it is only when Ariel gets a ransom demand that the authorities accept a crime has been committed. This is a clever, twisty, convincing novel about human cruelty and the need to be believed.
Emily, the high-achieving teenage daughter of abusive parents runs with a bad crowd of schoolmates in the small town of Longbill Beach. When she realises that she is pregnant without having any idea who raped her at an alcohol- and drug-fuelled party, her so-called friends shun her, as does everyone else in the town. Even Emily’s parents blame her for her condition and tell her that the political career for which she has worked so hard is now barred to her. Decades later, another young woman, Andrea, survives the demanding training programme to become a US marshal and is soon involved with some of the surviving players in the old drama – and some new victims. Karin Slaughter re-creates Emily’s torment so effectively that she hooks the reader from the first page and Emily’s anger at the misogyny and cruelty of almost all of Longbill Beach’s residents pulls the line tight. Both Emily and Andrea are convincing characters and the chilling and complicated plot works well. Slaughter has a fine understanding of the many kinds of abusive relationships, as well as the ability to offer just enough examples of decent humanity to ward off despair.
Serial-killer novels are popular with many readers, the majority of whom don’t care that most real serial killers are neither brilliant nor charismatic but under-educated, resentful and without the most basic self-knowledge and self-control. Mark Billingham brings more than enough to the lives of his police characters to make up for any lack of realism. In his latest novel, DI Tom Thorne is his usual curmudgeonly, miserable self as he and DI Nicola Tanner investigate the discovery of a series of mutilated bodies in London. Their work is complicated by the re-emergence of Stuart Nicklin, an ultra-manipulative serial killer who once kidnapped and tortured Thorne’s best friend, the pathologist Phil Hendricks. Hendricks, Thorne and Tanner are bound together not only by affection but also by their past collusion in a professional cover-up. As Nicklin threatens to wreck their lives, Thorne trudges on through his working days and his relationship with his girlfriend, a psychologist. The hints of homoeroticism in his friendship with Hendricks are more overt than usual and generate real emotion. The ultimate resolution is unexpected and alarming.
The third in the brilliant Cyrus Haven series, Lying Beside You sees the forensic psychologist still living with Evie, whom he rescued in an earlier novel. Their lives are upended when his brother, who killed their parents and siblings years ago, is given limited release from the secure hospital to which the court sent him. Michael Robotham’s series is characterised by the compassion with which Cyrus deals with the damaged and damaging people who fill his world. His relationship with nineteen-year-old Evie is fascinating and beautifully realised. In this instalment of the series, they both become involved in the investigation of the murder of one woman and the disappearance of another. The back story Cyrus gradually uncovers is as agonising as the denouement. Tense, perceptive and fast-moving, this is a remarkable novel.
At first sight, this novel looks as though it will involve the overused plot of a group of friends on holiday finding out that at least one of them has done something shameful in the past, whereupon they are duly punished for it. But Sabine Durrant is too intelligent and creative to rely on such a clichéd story line. Her new novel is an exploration of vulnerability, trickery and cruel dishonesty. Ali, who goes by several different names, grew up in care, ran away to India and fell in with Sean, an expert con artist. Together they have ripped off tourists all over the world. When we first meet them on a beach in the south of France, they are working on Lulu, who is on her way to cook for a party of English holidaymakers in a rented villa. Nothing goes to plan. The novel lightens as we get further from Ali’s awful childhood and her almost equally awful servitude to Sean. As she plans her escape from him, she discovers that almost everyone is hiding something. In fact, the only honest character in this novel is the much-despised mother of the family in the rented villa. Many of the characters get their comeuppance and the ending gives great satisfaction.
Fiona Erskine has written another splendidly energetic thriller featuring Jaq Silver. Like her creator, Jaq is a chemical engineer who works all over the world. She is also physically strong, a powerful swimmer, resilient, resourceful and brave. She is the most wonderful antidote to the limp female victims of gaslighting so common in much crime fiction. Many people have tried to victimise Jaq, from her mother onwards, and she learned to fight back long ago. In The Chemical Cocktail, her mother is dead and some uncomfortable secrets are revealed, taking Jaq back to her unhappy childhood in Lisbon. The secrets and those who want to keep them hidden – or reveal them – lead us from Lisbon to Luanda and on to Brazil, where Jaq follows a trail left by her ancestors. Packed with fascinating science, thrills, shocks and relationships both touching and horrible, this is a terrific read.