Plots involving tortured children may not be a new development in crime fiction, but to me they are new and very unwelcome. In Rattle by Fiona Cummins (which I reviewed here last month), children suffering from a painful and incurable disease are abducted and ill-treated. In Say Nothing by Brad Parks (reviewed below), the cruel treatment of a pair of six-year-old twins who have been kidnapped is described in detail. I have previously criticised the way in which depictions of sadism in crime fiction have increased year on year; the victims are often young women and their torments are ever more ingenious and cruel. In the constant ratcheting up of the nastiness, showing children as victims may be the only way of outdoing the descriptions of all those tortured women. But in breaching one of our last surviving taboos, such novels make me feel even more strongly that we (that is, writers, readers, critics, publishers) should remember that crime fiction is primarily intended for entertainment. It may also exist, as the late, great Michael Innes put it, ‘to give you fear’, but even then there must be limits. There are some subjects that cannot ever be entertaining or enjoyable.
The period between 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and 1939, when war broke out, is obviously fascinating in historical terms, but it is also very tempting to thriller writers. Rory Clements’s previous series was set in Elizabethan England and featured William Shakespeare’s brother as a detective. In Corpus he leaps forward to 1936. Professor Thomas Wilde, an unconventional Cambridge don and amateur detective, finds himself involved in interlocking investigations: into the death of a young Englishwoman who has recently carried out an undercover mission in Germany, into the vicious murder of a landowner and his wife, and into the links between these crimes and Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Clements juggles his story’s disparate ingredients very skilfully, without – as far as I could tell – distorting facts. This book is the first in a series – good!
This is an interesting, knowledgeable and heartfelt story about what is now called ‘historical’ sex abuse. In many such cases the evidence is from so long ago that its reliability is questionable, even if it is sometimes relied on in court. In The Special Girls, the perpetrator has been committing the same crime year after year and getting away with it every time. The story begins with the murder of a young doctor who, along with his famous, charismatic and recently knighted boss, runs an informal holiday camp for anorexic girls. DI Grace Fisher investigates the crime, though the murder investigation becomes somewhat perfunctory when Fisher discovers that the teenagers have been sexually molested by a man who is supposed to be helping them. There is not much mystery here, though there is plenty of suspense and gripping, instructive writing about real people facing impossible, often tragic predicaments. This is an excellent crime novel, warmly recommended.
It is 1956 and Bernie Gunther is back. He has been living on the French Riviera in disguise, doing a menial job but a free man – until he declines an offer to go and work for a high-ranking secret policeman, a face from his past. It is a rash decision and he goes on the run to escape retribution. The chapters describing this adventure alternate with chapters set in the period just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when Gunther had been sent to the Bavarian mountains to track down the perpetrator of a murder in Hitler’s summer hideaway. Gunther, as always, is a hero with many flaws, but he is still the one good man in a vicious world. The intimate details of life in Nazi Germany, always scrupulously researched in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, are as fascinating as ever, though this one is not quite as taut as its predecessors; the book is very long – 560 pages – and there were moments when my attention wandered. Nevertheless, even one of Kerr’s less good novels is better than most of the competition.
This book is advertised as the first in a series of ‘Cosy Crime’ novels, a genre loosely defined as mysteries set somewhere unthreatening (often a traditional English village) and containing no explicit sex, gore or violence. Explicit is the operative word in that description, for by the end of this book the stage is strewn with more corpses than in productions of Hamlet. In the agreeable setting of a small town in the Yorkshire Dales, someone seems to be killing off the marriageable men. All have been clients of Delilah Metcalfe, a local woman who is attempting to make a living by running the Dales Dating Agency. Under the same roof is the Dales Detective Agency, a new and temporary enterprise founded by Samson O’Brien, a local boy who became a policeman but has been dismissed from the force. Metcalfe and O’Brien are forced to work together when he discovers that the connection between all the victims is their use of the dating agency. Cosy crime stories are unlikely by definition, but this one is nicely told and rather charming, so it should give traditionalists hours of innocent delight.
This is the fourth book in Ian Sansom’s series of county crime novels. There are forty-eight counties in England alone and almost twice this number if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are included. Swanton Morley, the ‘People’s Professor’ and author of the County Guides, must have many more adventures to come. He is joined here by his chaos-causing daughter, Miriam, and his glum assistant, Stephen Sefton, who slides ever deeper into depression and despair. This ill-matched team is in Essex. Invited to the Colchester Oyster Festival, they are present when the mayor drops dead at the civic reception. Food poisoning is the easy explanation; murder is the more likely one. These clever, well-written romps simultaneously send up the simplicities of ‘Golden Age’ mysteries and mimic them – the sincerest form of flattery.
It is not that common for adjudicators to preside, and then reach a decision, entirely on their own. Those who do are often more vulnerable than they seem. I realised this when I was, for a few years, a planning inspector, required to determine alone disputes on which millions of pounds could depend. As it happened, I was never offered a bribe or blackmailed, though I wrote a novel (A Private Inquiry, published in 1996) in which my heroine, also a planning inspector, was. The hero and narrator of Brad Parks’s Say Nothing is a federal judge in Virginia, appointed for life, removable from the bench only by act of Congress and not answerable to supervisors or voters. He has real power, but is also vulnerable. When his children are kidnapped, he has to do what the criminals demand in order to ensure that his six-year-old twins stay alive. The judge and his wife obey, disobey and fight back as best they can. Their predicament makes this a thrilling page-turner, but not one I enjoyed. Graphic descriptions of children being tortured are, for many readers and for good reason, a taboo.