The terrible experiences of Eastern European girls who are abducted from their homes and forced into prostitution have been described in several recent crime novels, which have taught me much about the lives of these trafficked women. Border Angels is set in Ireland, a country littered with a huge number of brand new, deserted housing estates, built in the boom and abandoned in the bust. The landscape of the border country where the action takes place is dotted with blown-up bridges and buildings, derelict houses and thick forests. In this unpromising terrain, Inspector Celcius Daly is investigating an attack that left two men dead. Daly must find Lena Novak, who was abducted, brought to Ireland and made to work in a brothel on the border. She had more spirit than most girls in her position and managed to escape. Did she leave behind the charred corpses of the men who had mistreated her? Or is she an innocent seeking refuge? The truth gradually becomes clear in this beautifully written novel. It reveals a frightening fact: the Troubles aren’t over yet.
n 1952 Spain was at the mercy of Franco’s fascist government and its thuggish enforcers. Ana is a journalist, dissatisfied with her assignments to fashion shows and social events. One day, filling in for a sick colleague, she covers a murder inquiry and involves herself in the investigation. She finds a bundle of letters in the house of a dead socialite, but the police aren’t interested so she takes them to a woman who is a specialist in linguistics but has been banned from working by the regime. They resolve to investigate together, but the decision puts them in terrible danger: the letters contain revelations about powerful people and the lies they have told, and they end up learning too much. This is an exciting, original and thoughtful thriller that paints a vivid picture of the awfulness of life in Barcelona, and indeed in the whole of Spain, during the fascist years.
The go-to word for the currently very fashionable in-your-face crime fiction is ‘gritty’. In gritty novels the criminals are the dregs and the police are indissolubly welded to them, a kind of symbiosis that reminds one that without bad guys doing bad things, the good guys would be out of work. In MacBride’s previous book, Acting Detective Inspector Logan McRae did something he should not have done. He has now been demoted to sergeant, banished from Aberdeen and sent out into the sticks to ‘develop’ his career by catching petty shoplifters and the odd criminal fugitive. But serious crime happens anywhere and everywhere. When the body of a little girl is washed ashore, a major manhunt gets going and the disgraced McRae has a chance to redeem himself. The Missing and the Dead is an exciting story, though it will sometimes seem incomprehensible to those who have not read the previous episode in the series. MacBride has become a Tartan Noir phenomenon and this book, like his others, is a guaranteed bestseller.
In many ways Toxic takes us on a familiar journey: the protagonist is on the staff of a government security agency, finds a hint of something unusual going on, can’t make anyone believe her and single-handedly saves capitalism and the Western world’s way of life. In this book the clever heroine is a forensic accountant who can’t persuade her superiors that she has identified a specific threat to international financial stability. At the same time, the richest man in the world, a Gulf state prince, is cooking up a plan to destroy more than the money markets; and a police officer gets involved when a dead body is found on a beach near a disused nuclear power station. What with the twin threats of nuclear catastrophe and an international bank (owned by the CIA) folding and taking the whole Western financial system down with it, there is plenty of suspense in this well-written and ambitious first novel.
This is another romp in the land of fantasy that is Ian Sansom’s amused and amusing version of England in the 1930s. The three main characters – the ‘People’s Professor’ Swanton Morley, his daughter Miriam and his assistant, the narrator Stephen Sefton – last met in Norfolk and are now on the English Riviera. They have driven down to Devon, which is going to be the subject of the professor’s second County Guide. The three of them are staying in a boys’ public school, where Morley has been asked to give the founder’s day speech. Murder, naturally, intervenes; and whodunnit, naturally, is discovered and revealed by the polymath professor. This is a darker story than Sansom’s previous one; it is enlivened by little extras such as Agatha Christie turning up as ‘the lady novelist’ who taught Miriam how to surf. This is an original and enjoyable read.
Here is yet another novel about a serial killer, one whose inventive sadism, carefully described, would normally make me give up on the book. But though deeply ‘noir’, The Faces of God is also a theological, or supernatural thriller. It is very original, and also beautifully written and translated from the French. Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock (the author uses his hero’s name as a pseudonym) is a most interesting character who uses peculiar methods – his own ‘strange brand of magic’ – to get inside his quarry’s mind. He regards his occasional waking dreams, or ‘heightened perception sessions’, as reliable messages, and so they usually are. It’s all very bizarre, but also strangely gripping.
This is one of those books that I open intending just to ‘taste’ it and some hours later find myself reaching the last page. When a young journalist is suspended by the muckraking tabloid that gave him his first London job, he goes home to the village in County Durham where he grew up and began his career on the local paper. He meets his successor, Helen, who is desperate to move on and up from reporting church fetes and prize-winning marrows. When a decades-old body is unearthed nearby, they get involved in an old case. At the same time they both start following a current case, the disappearance of a local teenager. It is feared that a serial rapist and killer has taken her. Another strand in this complicated story concerns a young detective constable who was once ambitious but is now convinced that his career is a spectacular failure. In the end everything is connected. Linskey’s deceptively simple and mild style conceals a powerful punch.
It’s hard to review this book in a few words. Morrell has combined a gruesome murder-melodrama with the results of his many years of research into Thomas de Quincey, the opium eater, and Queen Victoria. This cocktail of fact and fiction is an irresistible mixture – do try it.
I usually concentrate on new books here, but I can’t resist mentioning this one. Philip Pullman, in an introduction to this new edition, says that it is the best thriller he has ever read, and I almost agree. Set in the hellish environment of a Russian research station in the endless night and inhuman permafrost of Siberia, the book has stayed in my mind since it was first published twenty years ago. You won’t read anything better or more memorable this year.