Guido is a criminal lawyer living alone in Bari with his much-patched punchbag. He is well read, thoughtful and insomniac. Into his successful professional life comes an old flame, now the mother of a petty criminal in prison for murder. Reluctantly, Guido takes on the young man’s appeal. This is a sometimes slow-moving, always interesting, grown-up novel, packed not only with information but also with thoughts about the human condition and some familiar exercises in moral choice. Guido is attractive and, in among all the serious stuff, he offers the most intriguing pasta dish I have yet encountered.
Chris Brookmyre’s familiar sense of humour is suppressed in the first part of this impressive novel about Millicent, who has recently been released after serving a twenty-five-year sentence for a murder she says she did not commit. Now living in Glasgow with Vivian and Carla, she is planning to kill herself, still not absolutely sure that she might not in fact have stabbed Markus in a fog of drink and drugs. At the same time, Jerry is trying to fit in at university, hating the posh wankers, with their trust funds and unmerited self-confidence. Brought up by his now-dead grandmother, he is a fan of horror films and has not yet been caught for any of the crimes he committed with his mates. The two parts of the novel soon mesh and Brookmyre’s comic spirit resurfaces in an ingenious, occasionally farcical plot that deals with ancient crimes, present wickedness, cruelty, greed, manipulation and – in the case of some characters – redemption. There is a loose end I wanted tied up and one tremendous coincidence that could smack of a convenient plot device, yet such is Brookmyre’s skill that this has an air of tragic inevitability.
Cath is a photographer working in a Glasgow record shop and obsessed with houses where murders have been committed. Her interest is driven by memories of her best friend at school, who was murdered at home with her mother and siblings, before her father drove his car off the road and was killed. The story is divided between now and then, as Cath returns to the island of their childhood to find herself and the truth about the old murders. It is told mainly from her point of view, with other sections narrated from the dead man’s perspective. There are some striking passages in this well-written novel. At one moment, the father of the murdered girl thinks about his own childhood, when his father beat him mercilessly and was then kind: ‘Johnny staggered on his still-sore legs and tried not to smile. The smile would show he was happy and happy was for poofs.’
Ada Howell lost her childhood Eden at the age of thirteen when her novelist stepfather died and his crumbling family home in Wales had to be sold, forcing her and her despised mother to move to a suburban semi. During her gap year, Ada takes an expensive art history course in Venice, consorting with people who are richer and more confident than she is. Admiring them almost as much as she resents them, Ada tries to make herself indispensable, even helping to cover up a crime, so that they will be forced to include her in their social lives once the party returns to Britain. Devious and manipulative, she pulls the reader through this tale of gilded youth misbehaving and paying the price. The tension comes not so much from whether the truth about the crime will emerge as from whether or not Ada will ultimately get what she wants or the punishment she so richly deserves.
This prize-winning novel lays bare the hypocrisy and misogyny that ruled life in Ireland for so long. Two school friends find the body of a very young baby in the shed of their Dublin convent school’s garden. In spite of being told by the police that they must not talk about what they found, Ali is persuaded to join a television debate, where members of the audience yell that she’s a slut for advocating sex education and contraception. Running away from the attention, she goes to stay with an aunt on the family farm but finds only more trouble. The detective in charge of the case is more humane than many of the characters, but Ali has to deal with painful facts and emotions as she comes to terms with the truth about what happened before the baby died.
L V Matthews’s first novel is a colourful, fantastical exploration of emotional cruelty and the slipperiness of truth. The first-person narrator is El, the elder daughter of an absentee mother who died of cancer and a depressed father who killed himself. Clever, talented and stuck because of her grief and rage, El works as a waitress, while her bubbly, popular, beloved sister frolics through university. One night El encounters a man who was involved in their father’s death and embarks on a mission of investigation and revenge. Matthews produces scenes of great tension and her characters are excellent.
A powerful criminal has hired two bodyguards to ensure the safety of his young son and a suitcase of valuables on a bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka. One, known as Tangerine, is a fan of literary fiction, while his colleague, Lemon, is obsessed with Rev Wilbert Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine books. On the same train is a hit man whose current job conflicts with theirs and whose life is dogged by bad luck. There is also an alcoholic whose son lies in hospital in a coma and who is determined to take revenge on the psychopathic schoolboy who caused the accident that put him there. The complexities of the plot, combined with elements of farce and great characters, make this a highly original novel.
Set in France partly during the time of the coronavirus pandemic and partly during the Second World War, Peter May’s latest novel deals with the fate of the great paintings the French moved out of Paris at the start of the war, among them the Mona Lisa. Hitler wants it for a museum and Göring for his own collection, while de Gaulle is determined to preserve it for France. A copy has been made, so perfect that few experts could tell the difference between it and the original, and one or both versions are successfully hidden. A young French woman trained by SOE is parachuted into France at de Gaulle’s behest to protect them. She faces all kinds of threats and must work out not only which painting is real but also which of the people around her, French and German, are what they seem. Then, in 2020, retired forensic archaeologist Enzo Macleod is sent to the village to inspect the recently discovered body of a German soldier. As the narrative moves between the two periods, May reveals impressive research while keeping the reader guessing.
The fourth book in Stuart MacBride’s Ash Henderson series has the ex-detective inspector and his loquacious sidekick, forensic psychologist Dr Alice McDonald, helping the police in their search for a paedophile who kidnaps and eventually kills young boys. During their investigation they are called to a small clifftop settlement of condemned houses when part of the cliff falls away and reveals a cache of human bones. MacBride is probably the only man who can inject humour into a story about a hunt for paedophiles and serial killers. He is also a master of describing horrible physical cruelty and pain.
Interwar Glasgow was a city of grime, deprivation, sectarian strife and violence, both on the streets and in the inadequate tenements. Robbie Morrison, a writer of comics and television scripts, has set his first novel there. His lead character is DI Jimmy Dreghorn, who moved straight from school to the shipyards and was picked out by a local rich man to train as a boxer. He survived the war and returned to police the streets of his childhood. He is pulled back into the orbit of the rich man when his son-in-law is found murdered. The unfolding of the case is the least interesting thing in this powerful and moving novel. Morrison’s portrait of Glasgow and its denizens – both the vicious and the virtuous – is superb.