The story of the development of the atom bomb has often been told, so readers will have heard of many of the characters in this thriller. It is set in and around the University of Chicago in 1942, when the physicist Enrico Fermi and his oddly assorted team are working desperately to create the ‘super-weapon’. Special Agent James Nessheim has resigned from the service and enrolled as a law student, but in the middle of the war he cannot escape his duty when his former boss, Harry Guttman, requires him to join Fermi’s team and track down a spy. Enter Nessheim’s beautiful old flame, the enigmatic Stacey, and other mysterious figures who might be threats to the research programme. The style is perhaps a little too downbeat and detached for readers to get really excited, but any story concerning the development of the bomb is bound to be interesting and I enjoyed reading this one.
In his twenty-fifth appearance as the one good man in a corrupt Venice, Commissario Brunetti is persuaded by his aristocratic mother-in-law to look into an incident that occurred fifteen years previously. A teenager rescued from drowning in a canal survived but was left brain-damaged, with the mental age of an infant. Was it really an accident, or was somebody responsible for the disaster? As he begins to investigate, Brunetti soon realises that there is more to the story than at first appeared. I do not think that Donna Leon’s worldwide popularity arises from the plots of these books, but from the recurring, ever more familiar characters – Brunetti himself, his family and colleagues – and from the setting, Venice itself. All the things that are wrong with the city appear in these books: corruption, decay and overcrowding are part of the scenery and Leon pulls no punches in describing them. But she still loves Venice and Brunetti, and so do her readers.
I cannot say with certainty that the places where David Hewson sets his novels are exactly as he describes them, but his depictions of Italy, Denmark and, here, the Netherlands do seem remarkably lifelike, as though he has lived in each of them for years. This book is set in a flat, watery corner of the country, where one island is used as an institution for juvenile offenders. Twenty-year-old twin girls are released after ten years behind bars, the punishment for murdering the man who killed the rest of their family. Set free, the girls disappear and their chaperone’s dead body washes up on the beach. The search for the missing twins is hindered by suspicious locals and official obstruction, as an increasing number of important people seem to be implicated in the events of the past. There is a lot of repetition and imitation in contemporary crime fiction and it is rare to find an author whose books seem entirely original. Hewson’s do.
This historical crime novel is set at Bletchley Park in 1942. We see that once-unknown (though now very familiar) enclave through the eyes of a young typist, Honey Deschamps. Her job is to transcribe the Germans’ decrypted signals: ‘Bletchley had filled her with secrets from her very first day, until she itched.’ Her boss promises to shoot her himself if she breaches the Official Secrets Act. Then an unknown person starts sending her coded messages. The colleague she asks to help decipher them is whisked away to a hospital. It is a reminder of how careful she must be in trying to decode the messages she has been sent, all of which seem to be connected with the famous Amber Room in St Petersburg. Honey makes increasingly reckless enquiries and equally rash (if perhaps anachronistic) comments: for instance, comparing the women workers’ puny wages with the amount the men are paid. A complicated, interesting story with an unexpected denouement.
If group psychotherapy sounds like your idea of hell, then don’t read this account of six people who meet once a week at their therapist’s house. Sharing your most embarrassing secrets with people who have equal reasons to be embarrassed and ashamed should, in theory, alleviate feelings of remorse, regret and shame. In this case, however, the talking cure leads to murder within the ill-assorted group. Mark Billingham is a very clever writer and all the characters in this book are rounded and credible. However, they are not individuals with whom most of us would choose to spend much time in real life, whether as fellow patients or as people to party with, let alone read about.
Having won a crime-writing competition, Abir Mukherjee has tackled his first full-length novel very successfully. This is an enjoyable tale of British India after the First World War. Captain Sam Wyndham has decided to put his unhappy early life behind him and come to Calcutta to take up a senior post in the police force. His sergeant, Surrender-not, a Cambridge graduate with an accent ‘straight off a Surrey golf course’, was born in India and is consequently patronised and undervalued by most of the senior officers he encounters, but Wyndham is more egalitarian in his outlook and takes Surrender-not wherever he goes. Together they track down Calcutta’s criminals, as Wyndham gradually finds his way around the strange country and its incomprehensible inhabitants. Agreeably witty and sharply written, this is an evocative portrait of a multifaceted Calcutta, where rectitude and corruption keep fighting it out.
Even reviewers have favourites and John Lawton is one of mine. Nobody is better at using historical facts as the framework of a really good story. This is another of Lawton’s Berlin novels, set at just the moment the Wall went up. Joe Wilderness, making his second appearance, is sprung from jail by his father-in-law, who, as it happens, is a senior officer in MI6. In return, Wilderness has to do what he’s told, in this case returning to Berlin to run, or to rescue, a couple of Britons trapped on the wrong side of the new barrier. The crowded, complicated story is enriched by glimpses of Kennedy and Khrushchev, by pinpoint-precise period detail and by interesting, credible characters.
As a reader, I am resistant to the point of refusal when it comes to adult fiction with talking animals. As a reviewer, I know that many of my readers are charmed by Suzette Hill’s series of 1950s romps. I can see that The Primrose Pursuit is funny and quirky, with figures who actually deserve to be called ‘a real character’ and a good deal of carefully planned skulduggery described in elegant prose. If that is the kind of book you like, then this is a novel you will really love.