Keep Him Close by Emily Koch; Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok; Black River by Will Dean; Burnt Island by Kate Rhodes; The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel; Black Rain Falling by Jacob Ross; The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood; To Kill a Man by Sam Bourne; Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

March 2020 Crime Round-up

  • Emily Koch, 
  • Jean Kwok, 
  • Will Dean, 
  • Kate Rhodes, 
  • Stephanie Wrobel, 
  • Jacob Ross, 
  • Trevor Wood, 
  • Sam Bourne, 
  • Rosamund Lupton

Keep Him Close

By Emily Koch

Harvill Secker 336pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Two single mothers living in the same town but unknown to each other become linked when a young man dies and another is blamed for his death. One of the women has dealt with marital trauma by being as open as possible and searching for others to comfort, the other by locking all her emotional doors and keeping her secrets behind them. The tragedy that links them and the police investigation it triggers show exactly why it is young men who are most at risk of violent crime. This is a moving account of family relationships and mainly low-level but devastating criminality, touching on bullies as well as their victims and leaving the reader with a terrible question: are dislikeable children born that way or made so by parental dislike?

Searching for Sylvie Lee

By Jean Kwok

John Murray 336pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is a novel about the hardships refugees face as they try to find a place in a strange society. It is also about family rivalries, secrets and suffering. High-achieving Sylvie, the elder daughter of Chinese immigrants now living in Queens, has disappeared on a visit to her dying grandmother in the Netherlands. Her younger sister, Amy, searches for her, first in America, where she had been living with her rich Waspy husband, then in the Netherlands. Amy has always known she can never rival her brilliant sibling, while Sylvie has always been sure that she will never be as loveable as her younger sister. Their parents’ marriage is also strained and both work incredibly hard for low pay. Quite different concerns drive the Dutch part of the family. The secrets everyone has been hiding are reasonably clear to the reader, but that does not spoil the suspense, and the relationships are convincing. The narration is split between the sisters and their mother, whose English is full of Chinese sayings and metaphors that add colour to the unfolding tragedy.

Black River

By Will Dean

Point Blank 384pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

The journalist sleuth Tuva Moodyson escaped from the small, isolated town of Gavrik at the end of Will Dean’s previous novel to take up a job in Malmö. But old loyalties prove too strong to resist when she hears that her erstwhile best friend, Tammy Yamnin, has disappeared. Tuva drives all night through the heat and light of the Swedish midsummer, straight back into her old life and relationships. Her attempts to help the police find Tammy lead her to suspect many of the eccentric and dangerous inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. Dean effectively re-creates the frustration and discomfort of high summer in the forested hills, where ticks and mosquitoes feast on the searchers, sweat pours off everyone and terror about the possible fate of the missing woman torments Tuva even more than the natural hazards. She is becoming more credible with each novel in the series and Dean brings a refreshingly different voice and setting to the subgenre of ‘femjep’ crime writing.

Burnt Island

By Kate Rhodes

Simon & Schuster 384pp £20 order from our bookshop

Kate Rhodes spent childhood holidays in the Scilly Isles and she clearly feels a great affinity for the area, something shared by many of the characters in her Ben Kitto series. Kitto was born and brought up there, then worked for the Met, before returning to become deputy chief of police. He is an attractive character, friends with many women but unattached (except to his energetic dog), and big and courageous. When a burnt corpse is found on a makeshift pyre, Kitto sleeps on the ground beside it all night to protect the evidence. As usual, all the inhabitants of the island fall under suspicion. Many of them have secrets to hide and Kitto has to disentangle their stories and evasions before he finds the truth. The landscape is well described, but as in any closed-community crime novel, where all the characters inevitably fall under suspicion, it is hard to make each of them equally convincing. Occasionally the psychological explanations for their behaviour seem a trifle simplistic.

The Recovery of Rose Gold

By Stephanie Wrobel

Michael Joseph 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

In the wake of January’s Grace is Gone by Emily Elgar comes another novel inspired by the real case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard. Stephanie Wrobel’s debut begins with the release from prison of Patty Watts, a mother who faked her daughter’s many ‘illnesses’. The daughter, Rose Gold, has been visiting her in prison. After Patty’s release, Rose takes her into the house where she cares for her baby. The novel moves back and forth between the perspectives of mother and daughter, showing how each resents the other and how both share a talent for manipulation. The misery and cruelty involved in the relationship – and in both women’s other relationships – make this intelligent novel highly disturbing to read.

Black Rain Falling

By Jacob Ross

Sphere 432pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Jacob Ross brings a new and invigorating voice to British crime fiction. His main character is Michael Digson (known as Digger), a police officer on the Caribbean island of Camaho. He once spent a year in London learning about forensic science and has taken his knowledge back to the island, along with his ability to speak formal English, instead of the local version, when necessary. He is a man of integrity and is determined to clear up the violence, corruption and injustice all around him. His closest colleague, Miss Stanislaus, was raped as a child by a huge man now terrorising a neighbouring island; his lover, Dessie, is the daughter of one of the rich and ruthless men at the top of the social pyramid and the ex-wife of a brutal boat builder. Ross paints a convincing picture of the massive divisions between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, and the fundamentally virtuous and the utterly revolting.

The story is told from Digger’s point of view in formal English, though most of the dialogue is in the local idiom. At one point, Digger harangues a corrupt official, leading a colleague to interject, ‘Digson, where you get them words from? You went to England for one blaastid year, and they send you back to colonise we arse again.’ The novel is full of entrancing descriptions, horrible brutality, rage at injustice and great warmth. It is no surprise that Ross has won prizes for his short fiction.

The Man on the Street

By Trevor Wood

Quercus 432pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Trevor Wood is not the first crime writer to make his sleuth homeless, but such characters are still rare. Jimmy is, like so many real homeless men, a military veteran. He was invalided out of the navy because he was deemed ‘psychologically unfit for duty’ after his ship was blown up and his best friend killed. PTSD contributed to the breakdown of his marriage and his estrangement from his daughter, and he still suffers nightmares and flashbacks. He lives on the streets in Newcastle, foraging in bins for food, supporting – and supported by – his mates Deano and Gadge, and his dog, Dog. All of them suffer and witness harassment, prejudice and brutality from passers-by and the police. One night, Jimmy sees a man being flung into the river. Later, enjoying the warmth of the local library, he sees an appeal poster put up by a young woman whose father disappeared at the time of the attack. Soon the two of them join forces and try to find out whether there is a connection and what exactly happened. The characters are great and the descriptions of life on the streets are heartbreakingly convincing. This is a first novel and it will be interesting to see how Wood develops Jimmy in future outings.

To Kill a Man

By Sam Bourne

Quercus 400pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Sam Bourne’s all-purpose political troubleshooter Maggie Costello is asked to help a high-flying lawyer and possible presidential candidate who has been raped at home. While fighting off her attacker with a heavy object, she smashed in his skull. The woman carries one of the most celebrated surnames in America, Winthrop, and admits that she grew up in absurdly privileged circumstances. She is also beautiful, clever and astonishingly hardworking. But the investigating officers won’t be put off and arrest her for the murder of her attacker. As Maggie trawls through her client’s past, rapists all over the world are being kidnapped and punished by masked gangs. At the same time, Winthrop’s rivals for the presidential candidacy are engaged in their own skulduggery. The mixing of politics, child abuse, rape and vigilantism feels a bit forced, sometimes giving the sense that two separate novels have been bundled together here.

Three Hours

By Rosamund Lupton

Viking 320pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

A school in north Somerset is in lockdown. An explosion has been heard in the woods around it and a masked gunman shoots the headmaster. The teacher is pulled to semi-safety by some senior pupils, who do all they can to staunch the bleeding while he worries about the juniors, who are in classrooms scattered around the school grounds. The narrative focus moves between him, his main carer, two Syrian refugee children he has rescued from the Jungle camp at Calais, various parents and teachers, and the police. Their preoccupations and fears all feel real and the tension is at times extreme. But the most original and impressive aspect of the novel is its examination of goodness confronted with psychopathic brutality.

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