It is nearly seventy years since George Orwell pointed out how much pleasure the British public took in reading about murders. Nothing has changed. True crime is a booming subgenre, so I was surprised to learn that this is the first popular account of the crimes of one of the most notorious poisoners of the 19th century, Dr William Palmer. The case attracted almost universal attention at the time. Even Queen Victoria recorded Palmer’s conviction in her journal. In this vivid and dramatic account of his life and crimes, Stephen Bates seems a little more forgiving than Palmer’s contemporaries, attributing to him fewer murders than he was hitherto thought to have committed. Having done an enormous amount of research, he could well be right – not that it would have made much difference in the end. Even by Bates’s calculations, Palmer was a killer. He was one of the last people to be hanged in public, in 1856.
The Marshalsea debtors’ prison was one of the more savage places in early-18th-century London. It is brought to gruesome life in this highly accomplished first novel. The hero, Tom Hawkins, is a parson’s son who becomes a man about town, moving from brothel to gambling table to coffee house. Unable to pay his debts, he is thrown into the Marshalsea, where only the fittest and most unscrupulous survive, and Tom’s life depends on identifying a murderer – if he is not killed first by vermin, infection, torture or the malevolence of other inmates. The appalling environment springs to life in Antonia Hodgson’s clear, direct prose and her rendering of 18th-century conversation is convincing. Most of the characters are based on real people described in a contemporary prison diary and we are told that the story too was inspired by actual events. They have been made into a remarkably good debut.
When Julia’s dead body is found in her own sitting room, her family and the police are convinced that she was a selfish neurotic who committed suicide. Her best friend, Livy, can’t and won’t believe it. She sets out to prove that Julia was murdered, but in the search for the truth about her private life she makes discoveries that change her view not only of her friend, but also of herself. This is another novel in a highly fashionable sub-category, set in the world of today’s thirty-something women, with their interesting jobs, insecure relationships and always one too many things to do. Sophie McKenzie is a successful writer of young adult fiction, a very demanding genre, and has learnt how to capture and keep her readers’ attention, which she does very efficiently in this, her second novel for adults.
Judith Flanders has previously written about the Victorians’ fascination with murder and its ubiquity in novels, plays and culture generally. Now, as if to show that we are no less enthralled than our ancestors were by the subject, her first published novel is crime fiction. Samantha Clair is a pleasingly original heroine: happily unmarried, enviably uninterested in her own appearance and with a usefully domineering lawyer mother who can set judges, police officers and other authority figures dancing to her tune. Sam is a publisher who takes on a tell-all book about a famous fashion designer. But when the author disappears she finds herself propelled into a secret and frightening world of money laundering and murder. It’s a good story with delightfully witty writing. More, please.
Setting his story against a background of real events, Edward Wilson presents a wacky explanation for what he calls ‘the great enigma of the present time, the rapid rise of China into an economic and military superpower’. His hero has the evocative surname Catesby; when he meets the Queen she makes a mischievous joke about the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby is trying to uncover the truth about Lady Somers, the first woman to be in charge of the Ministry of Defence, and about her alienated daughter, who became involved in the sex scandals of London in the Swinging Sixties before defecting to communist China. His quest takes him to Moscow and then to Southeast Asia, where he sees the full horrors of America’s war in Vietnam. It would take a historian to unravel this cat’s cradle of actual and invented events. I found them all totally credible and the eventual explanation ingenious and rather shocking. A book well worth reading.
This novel is thrilling, enthralling and beautifully written. The prose and dialogue are so unflashily precise that it was only after finishing it that I noticed that it’s one of those rarities: a book in which there is no superfluous word or temptation for the busy reviewer to skip ahead. In it the author has drawn a wonderful portrait of sisterly jealousy; revealed parts of Egypt tourists don’t see; discussed Judaism in our own time and a hundred years ago; and invented a computer program to record every detail of daily life. At the centre of this sophisticated edifice is a credible, even frightening kidnapping plot. Dara Horn tells us in an afterword that she had reimagined the biblical story of Joseph in a contemporary setting. I didn’t quite get the analogy, and in fact have probably missed other allusions and parallels. Never mind; if ever a crime novel deserved rereading, it is this one.
The Killing took us by surprise, The Bridge was a good follow-up, but the political drama Borgen (for me at least) knocked spots off both. For readers who enjoy these Scandinavian imports, this novel is a treat – set in Norway rather than Denmark and a murder mystery rather than a straight political drama. The story switches between the suspicious death of an old woman in her care home and the troubles of the female justice minister, who is accused by a young male politician of sexual harassment. The minister’s estranged brother is a reporter who finds himself investigating both cases, which (obviously) turn out to be connected. Scenes switch rapidly, as they do on screen, the dialogue is sharp and snappy and the characters seem to come alive in this sophisticated and suspenseful tale.
Peter Lovesey writes classic whodunnits with clues, suspects and surprises, describing himself as ‘one of an endangered species along with the polar bear and the orang-utan’. This story is about the criminals competing for a medieval carving of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Don’t be put off by the curiously dreary jacket. It disguises an enjoyable mystery full of interesting information.
Some of the best crime novels leave their readers better informed about obscure oddities and Sharon Bolton’s seventh book does just that. Here it is a rare physical condition and the unusual and dangerous practice of swimming in the tidal section of the Thames at Deptford Creek, a sinister, perilous place that makes an excellent setting for the latest adventure of constable Lacey Flint. She has stepped back from detection after her previous case ended badly, and lives alone on a houseboat, pining for her absent lover, a cop on a dangerous undercover mission. When she finds the body of a drowned woman, Lacey is drawn back into investigating. An original and intriguing story.