Dame Ngaio Marsh was one of the ‘grandes dames of detective fiction’, often mentioned in the same breath as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers. Her hero detective was the aristocratic Inspector Alleyn, who, like his creator, became famous before the Second World War and then spent the war years in her native New Zealand. She left this book, set in wartime New Zealand, unfinished. It reminds us that the fear of invasion was as strong there as it was in Britain, with similar blackout regulations and air-raid shelters built in back gardens. Inspector Alleyn, in disguise, is spy-hunting around an army hospital in remote countryside when its matron is found murdered. They are cut off by floods, the telephone connection goes down and Alleyn has to investigate without underlings or equipment. It is a complicated tale, so well completed by Stella Duffy that I was quite unable to see the join. What a treat, for an unknown novel by a favourite author to turn up years after her death.
This is the sixth appearance of the senior British spy William Catesby, a crafty character who, unlike most such fictional heroes, is an ardent socialist. The book opens just before the outbreak of the Falklands War. In the whole of South America, Catesby has only one agent, a young woman whose loyalties are divided between her country and her partner, an Argentinian polo player and pilot. Catesby must travel to Peru himself to negotiate a last-minute agreement with the Argentinian junta. In this version of history, peace terms have been agreed and fighting is on its way to being averted when the Argentinian ship General Belgrano, well outside the ‘exclusion zone’, is torpedoed on Thatcher’s orders. Some readers will know how much of this long, shameful story is true. Wilson makes it all seem absolutely factual – and absolutely fascinating.
Single women who drink too much and whose problems are based at home are so last year. The current fashion when it comes to crime-fiction heroines is for gutsy professionals, police officers whose domestic duties and difficulties, although real, take second place to the requirements of their jobs. In The Devil’s Dice, Meg Dalton has returned to Derbyshire and a position as detective inspector in her home town, where, caught between duty to her job and to her family, she is sent to investigate the death of a lawyer in one of the Peak District’s caves. The setting is dramatic, the characters are convincing and the motive for murder, when eventually uncovered, is interesting. The author has a degree from Cambridge in natural sciences, and a good deal of intelligence is needed to write this kind of fiction, in which brains take precedence over emotion. This smart, enjoyable debut novel is advertised as ‘the first in a new detective series’. That’s something to look forward to.
Here is another first novel, and another female police officer who has returned to her home town and been tasked with finding a murderer. Once again, there is tension between a woman’s obligations to her colleagues and work and her obligations to her family. But this book is set in Australia. A young teacher has been found murdered and Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock is the lead investigator. She is not admitting that, as a teenager, her relationship with the dead woman was close, or that she has been involved with some of the suspects. Interviews with witnesses reveal that everyone, from the school’s head teacher to its youngest student, loved and admired the victim, as did her father and brothers. Woodstock doggedly follows every clue, always torn between her duty to her small son and her partner and her passion for another detective, with whom she is having an indiscreet affair. This is a good story, well told.
There is something very appealing to readers of fiction, and particularly to readers of crime fiction, about getting to know more and more about a place and becoming ever better acquainted with interesting characters. It is perhaps for this reason that in the heyday of conventional crime fiction there were at least as many series detective novels as stand-alone mysteries. The series is no longer the dominant form, though many excellent writers still use it. One of the best is Alex Gray. This is the fifteenth book in her series set in Glasgow, featuring William Lorimer, now a detective superintendent, as well as his wife and two great friends, a pathologist and her husband, who is a psychologist. Between them they have the skills to track down murderers and other criminals, such as child-traffickers, and the emotional intelligence to keep each other sane. Highly recommended.
There is only one police detective in Reykjavik in 1941. He has teamed up with an American military policeman of Icelandic descent to investigate the murder of a travelling salesman. The detectives focus on a family of German-born residents, a retired doctor and his estranged son. They learn of experiments conducted on schoolboys and their long-term effects. They identify the woman who is said to have been the dead man’s girlfriend. Just in time, they find the killer. Arnaldur Indriđason is one of the most successful writers of what is known as ‘Nordic noir’ and is frequently described as one of crime fiction’s greatest authors. His books have been bestsellers all over the world. So I am perhaps a little out of step with received opinion in thinking that The Shadow Killer is a good, plain crime novel, full of interesting titbits about Iceland in wartime (at the end of the book, Winston Churchill visits Reykjavik) but in some sections actually quite heavy going.
Having published a trilogy of international adventures, Robert Goddard returns in Panic Room to Cornwall, where he lives, and to Wortalleth West, a modern mansion on a lonely clifftop, built by a notorious tycoon. On behalf of this billionaire’s estranged wife, an estate agent goes to Cornwall to value the property, supposedly empty but in fact lived in by a young woman who was briefly the housekeeper. She is hiding here to escape her real life. The estate agent discovers that the house has a hidden, inaccessible ‘safe room’ at just about the same time that he also realises some ruthless people are trying to track down its secretive owner and his money. The action moves from London to Cornwall and France, with plenty of twists. Isolated Cornish houses have been the scene of many a crime and many an adventure, and not only in fiction. As always, Goddard can be relied upon to entertain.