Given that I have four children and eleven grandchildren, you might expect me to be more enthusiastic about novels in which children play an active part, but they do not often appeal. I would not usually have read any further than the blurb of Firefly, which informs us that its hero is a boy of thirteen. But Henry Porter is always worth reading and can be trusted to know exactly how much sentimentality, how much action and how much inside information will make the perfect mixture. He is also a wizard with words. Naji is a Syrian whose family has already reached safety in the West. Now he is determined to join them. Resourceful and unusually clever, he is making his way from Greek refugee camps, across the mountains of Macedonia and onwards, carrying an important secret that makes both ISIS terrorists and MI6 determined to get their hands on him. A successful journalist as well as a novelist, Porter is very well informed and seems to have conducted detailed research in order to describe the desperate and dangerous journey from Syria to Europe that so many refugees are making. His book is a very good thriller, but it left me feeling ashamed because writing a cheque for a charity helping refugees seems such an inadequate response to their plight. What else can one do?
It is twenty-five years since a local hero rescued two people from a major fire. That same night and very close by, a young woman was raped and murdered. Nobody was identified as the criminal, but now new DNA techniques have been developed and Detective Inspector Grace Fisher (heroine of Isabelle Grey’s previous crime novels) hopes to identify the killer. Fisher finds it impossible to keep her investigation secret in the digital age; a young ‘true crime’ podcaster is keeping up with what goes on in the police station and, in doing so, puts himself at risk. Following Fisher’s actions and thought processes is both interesting and enjoyable. Grey, a successful television screenwriter, is an excellent novelist who knows exactly how to pace a scene – and to deliver a good read.
This is what happens… I admit defeat. Mick Herron’s latest novel baffles me. It is about Maggie, a conventional young woman who lives alone in a horrible London flat and earns a meagre living in a dead-end job. Her only family is an estranged sister; she has no boyfriend and knows nobody. So when she meets a man who offers her the chance of doing something heroic to thwart an international plot against Britain, Maggie eagerly accepts. Two years later, she is still doing it: living alone, cut off from society, her only connection with the wider world coming via the man who conned her into going into hiding in the first place. Then Maggie’s long-lost sister turns up and there is a dramatic denouement. Herron is regarded as one of the best crime novelists of today. I know that his fans will love this book. I too have laughed at and enjoyed his tales of inept spooks, but this time I just didn’t get it.
Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi has been transferred, following a scandal, from her job in London to a rural force. With her resentful teenage daughter she has moved to a middle-of-nowhere house in Kent’s salt marshes to work in the Kent police. But rural isolation does not mean she has less crime to deal with, just that it is different. We begin with the discovery of the body of a North African man, one of an itinerant army of fruit pickers, who has drowned in a slurry pit. There are more bodies, more mysteries and quite a bit about Cupidi’s precarious relationship with her daughter: ‘All she had wanted to do was prove to her daughter that she wasn’t just a mother. She was the woman who found the killers.’ Cupidi is a convincing character and William Shaw’s evocation of the unforgiving Kent landscape is very well done. All this, however, is secondary to the social commentary. This murder mystery has a message that comes over loud and clear.
Belinda Bauer is one of the very few really original crime writers of our time. Most of the crime novels I am sent (fifty of them a month on average) fit easily into categories, but Snap, like Bauer’s earlier work, is a one-off. It opens with a scene that many readers will be only too familiar with: a family is driving to Cornwall for the holidays when, on the M5 near Exeter, the car breaks down. The mother tells the two younger girls that their eleven-year-old brother, Jack, is in charge and walks off to find an emergency telephone. She never comes back. Jack is left to care for his sisters and makes sure that nobody ever discovers that he is looking after them. The plot is neat and clever, but it is not the stories, the style or the characters alone – though all are good – that set Bauer’s work apart. It is an indefinable extra ingredient that makes some books stand out from the crowd. This is one of them.
Online dating has always struck me as a terribly risky idea, but saying so simply provokes disagreement, ranging from claims that I’m too old to understand to furious defences of modern dating systems. The events of D B Thorne’s new thriller could vindicate my caution. It follows the crimes of a male predator, the suffering of the girls who are his victims, and how he is tracked down by a clever loner, forced to do the detecting because the police are unwilling to help. The tale comes over as highly realistic: it would be interesting to know if parts of it are based on actual cases. Perfect Match is well worth reading – gripping and also frightening.
Blind Defence marks the second appearance of William Benson, a barrister and ex-con, whose boldness in going to the bar after serving a sentence for murder has outraged the whole legal profession. I hope John Fairfax, a pseudonym for the bestselling author William Brodrick, is planning a long series involving Benson. Of course, not everyone likes reading about lawyers and the law. This excellent legal thriller is for those who do.
With 535 pages in tiny type, I might well have left this book unread but for the fact that I am interested in pre-Second World War Berlin, which Kutscher skilfully re-creates. Hitler’s Nazis were discovering their strength and clever, resourceful German Jews (such as my own parents) were leaving the country. Horrible history indeed, but this is a fascinating novel.