D V Bishop’s first crime novel, City of Vengeance, introduced the excellent 16th-century Florentine sleuth Cesare Aldo. Aldo is back in The Darkest Sin, but this time there is a less of the warmth and charm of his first outing. Here he is required to investigate the murder of a man whose naked body has been found in the convent of Santa Maria Magdalena. As Bishop explains in a note at the end of the novel, at the time one in twenty women in Florence was a nun. Monastic life was a way of avoiding forced marriage, but the misogyny of the Church leaders meant it had many disadvantages. Politics played a large part too. The research in this novel is impressive, but it could have had a bit more zip.
Charlotte Philby introduces this novel about her grandfather Kim and the woman who recruited him to the Soviet cause with the statement ‘All history is fiction.’ But her use here of the relatively few known facts about Edith Tudor-Hart, née Suschitzky, is persuasive. Born in Austria, she attended the Bauhaus, trained as a photographer and joined the Communist Party. Later she married a British surgeon, Alexander Tudor-Hart, and had a son with him before they divorced. The child, Tommy, did not speak, hated noise and crowds and went on to self-harm and act violently towards others. Philby portrays Edith’s stubborn sense of faith effectively, showing how she fought against acknowledging the cruelties of the Soviet system and its heroes, and also against the idea that there could be anything amiss with her son beyond the trauma caused by his parents’ arguments and living through the London Blitz. Edith eventually turns to both Anna Freud and Donald Winnicott for help. Philby makes you work, fracturing the narrative, repeating a section, introducing an unnamed character and punctuating her account of Edith’s life with passages apparently copied from files at the National Archives and undated letters written by Kim Philby. But the disparate sections build into an involving portrayal of a woman who suffered for her faith and whose naivety and idealism enabled some of the worst treachery against her adopted country. In one of his letters to Edith, Kim writes that he envies her for living in freedom rather than in the authoritarian climate of the USSR. But she lived in poverty and distress and he in relative luxury and contentment. Nothing is clear cut in this impressive novel.
In The Paris Apartment, Lucy Foley gives us Ben, a struggling journalist on the trail of a big story, and his half-sister, Jess. She arrives in Paris, scared and exhausted, to find that he has disappeared and is no longer answering his phone. Among the skills she acquired in her years in foster care is lock-picking, and so she gains entry to his flat in a smart building in Montmartre, determined to find out what has happened to him. As she picks up clues and gets to know the other, rather strange, inhabitants of the building, we learn more about her childhood and Ben’s. She is a great character, gutsy, warm and determined, and it is impossible not to root for her as she gets closer to the truth about her brother and his activities. The twist is well handled and it works.
Sarah Vaughan’s 2018 novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, dealt with a university rape and the sense of entitlement that made the rapist certain that satisfying his own inclinations far outweighed any harm he might do to anyone else. This time, Vaughan has MP Emma Webster fighting in the House of Commons to criminalise revenge porn and take every possible action to protect women. Her activities arouse so much fury among women-hating inadequates that she has to keep two huge bottles of water on her constituency desk in case someone throws acid at her. She has been stalked. Angry constituents make all kinds of threats. Her ex-husband has remarried their only daughter’s music teacher, who was once Emma’s friend and colleague. And her daughter is having a very hard time at school because her erstwhile best friend has turned on her. Vaughan gives a colourful and convincing picture of the difficulties of public life, particularly for women, and shows clearly that every crime, however small, has an ancestry in things that have been done to the criminal. She arouses sympathy for many of the victims here and is honest enough to show that girls and women can be quite as dangerous as men and boys.
The title of Noah Hawley’s mixture of state-of-the-nation novel, dystopian fantasy and authorial manifesto must refer to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. It is set a few years after the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when a fashion for suicide among adolescents is spreading from America across the world. Parents are distraught and families are being destroyed. Fifteen-year-old Simon’s older sister Claire killed herself with the opioids that have made her father enormously rich. Simon has been sent to a clinic that specialises in dealing with anxiety. There, he meets other young people, with whom he escapes to pursue a quest for redemption. The world in which they operate is an exaggerated version of the present, filled with guns, people who care only about money, terrible divisions between rich and poor, children in cages at frontiers, armed militias attacking strangers, ignorance, credulity, corruption and cruelty. And the planet is burning up because of climate change. At the heart of it all is a billionaire with an insatiable desire for sex with teenage girls and a team of people to procure them for him, as well as a fixer, Astrid, who helps to persuade them that what he wants – always described as a ‘massage’ – is perfectly normal. Simon meditates on the fact that ‘two-thirds of Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world’. The young believe their parents’ generation has wrecked everything, but a private security expert argues that ‘part of what’s wrong with the youth of today’ is ‘too many expectations. Entitlement. No wonder they’re knocking themselves off in record numbers. Mommy and Daddy cut up their fucking string beans for eighteen years and then send them off to college, where suddenly they have to do their own work and nothing’s handed to them.’ This is an exhilarating, horrifying, exciting, funny, sad adventure of a novel, in which the young characters’ journey into the heart of the evil empire in order to destroy it carries real excitement. It left me with the conviction that the most important things anyone can be taught are accurate history and critical thinking.
Anyone who believes that novelists should never write from the point of view of a character whose life experiences they do not share should read Brian McGilloway’s latest book. His lead character is Pandora, always known as Dora, who is married to a long-distance lorry driver, Eamon, and is the mother of Ellie, who gets on well enough with her stepfather. But he’s a bit of a bully and Dora is not getting all she could out of married life. Everything changes when Ellie disappears. She was last seen with a friend from art college and is thought to have attended an illegal rave, which Dora thinks is quite out of character. The police question everyone and search all the likely locations but find nothing. The narrative is so fast-moving that I had to hold myself back in order to avoid missing the pleasures offered by McGilloway’s writing. There’s nothing flashy about it, but he is brilliant at rendering emotions. The way he describes Dora’s journey from panicked ignorance through active and illegal intervention in the investigation to the ultimate revelation is superb, and he has made her a wholly credible character.
Like so many others trying to make a living in the countryside, Will, who has inherited his family farm, and Selina are having to diversify. He’s a chef and would like to run cookery courses, but she has prevailed and so they have set up a wellness retreat for pregnant women, spending more than they can afford on bell tents and kilims and decorations of all sorts. Four women have signed up. All the women have their own issues and it soon becomes clear that neither Selina nor Will is exactly what they appear to be. More than one individual wants the business to fail and various familiar unpleasantnesses are perpetrated – a dead animal is dumped on the doorstep; a scarecrow that looks like a man is set on fire. Eventually murder is committed. Without being particularly convincing, this novel offers pleasures and a certain amount of tension.
Husband-and-wife team Ellery Lloyd follow their intriguing debut, People Like Her, about an influencer and the rage she induces, with a story about a wildly successful international chain of upmarket private clubs – the Home clubs. The novel focuses on the opening weekend of the new Island Home. The proceedings, which include more than one murder, are described from various points of view. These accounts are interspersed with passages from a later feature article about life at Island Home. Because almost all the characters are absolutely revolting in their egotism and selfishness, it is a little hard to care what happens to them. But there is some warmth here and a hint of decency. Collette Lyons, who forms one half of Ellery Lloyd, was editorial director at Soho House and clearly knows all about the realities of the private-club world.