Forensic archaeologist Dr David Hunter is called to assist the police when they discover a mummified body in the attic of a defunct hospital. A man with a tragic and terrifying past, Hunter is now trying to rebuild his life. His woes are compounded by the appearance of a cocky and tiresome forensic taphonomist from a private company. But nothing can get in the way of Hunter’s dedication to his work. Beckett gives so many details about the extracting, stripping and analysing of the bones of the dead that you start to smell formalin in your nostrils. The twist at the end works well and adds sinister emotional colour to the forensic work that provides most of the story.
Erin Kelly, whose earlier novels have dealt with subjects ranging from the discovery of a body in a peat bog to a disputed account of a rape, has set her latest story against a backdrop of the closure of the old mental asylums and the development of ‘community care’. We are introduced to one such former institution in East Anglia that has become a block of glamorous and expensive flats.
Marianne, who grew up in its shadow, returns to the area to help her younger sister care for their mother, who has dementia. The move puts her back in touch with her first boyfriend, who did not share her ambition to leave the village in search of professional and financial success. He hates the politician who took the decision to close the asylum and put locals out of work, and he still has secrets that Marianne could not bear him to betray. The narrative moves from the present day back to their shared adolescence, and then still further back into the early life of the politician in question, before returning to the present. The characters work and the secrets are as well handled as the suspense. Along the way Kelly addresses many important issues, such as the treatment of the mentally ill, how some of those who cannot accept their own sexuality mistreat those who can and do, and the gulf of resentment that can open up between those who get stuck in their lives and those who fight to escape anything that might hold them back from realising their full potential.
If one of the points of crime fiction is to explore the possibilities of redemption, Lou Berney’s new book deserves all the pre-publication plaudits that have come its way. November Road is unlike anything else I have read recently. Set at the time of the assassination of John F Kennedy, it deals with a mobster, Frank Guidry, and a young mother called Charlotte, who finds the courage to abandon her alcoholic husband and go in search of a life in which she can be herself.
Frank is used to cleaning up for his mafia boss, but when he’s sent to dispose of the getaway car used by the real assassin of JFK, he realises that he is due to be killed too. What follows is an engrossing account of Frank’s flight to Las Vegas. On the way he encounters Charlotte and her daughters. Berney describes horrifying brutality and terror in an easy, elliptical style that hides nothing but doesn’t invite the reader to wallow. Almost all the characters have redeeming features and affection emerges from the most unlikely figures. This is a beautifully structured examination of the best and worst of human behaviour.
Twisted is an entertaining metafictional story of multiple deceptions involving a bestselling thriller writer with a hidden identity. It is also an account of an unhappy suburban marriage and a woman succumbing to the charms of her scuba-diving instructor. There is much violence, considerable wit and plenty of good description. Realism is not high on the list of the novel’s many qualities, except in its portrayal of the investigators.
Fiona Erskine is an engineer, and in Jaq Silver, who shares her profession, she has created a wonderful antidote to all the resentful, floppy victims of much domestic noir. Jaq is working as an avalanche controller in Slovenia and realises that someone is messing with her explosive materials. From then on her life becomes a series of fights, arrests and near-death experiences as she chases the bad guys across Europe and Russia. She is clever and brave. She also likes fit younger men and hates the idea of domesticity. Her adventures are eye-popping and exciting.
A retired MP agrees to chair an inquiry into the actions of the secret service in combating terrorists in the UK and secretly approaches a junior barrister to join his team. She is a practising Muslim, who has had some past contact with people linked to terrorist atrocities. Many different interest groups have reason to frustrate the inquiry and soon its members are in serious danger. This is a well-researched and grown-up examination of the essential problems of espionage. How can you ever tell whether or not your double agent is in fact a triple one? How can you trust anyone who agrees to betray those who believe in his or her loyalty? How far should you go to ensure the safety of the citizens you are paid to protect?
Alafair Burke, now a teacher of criminal law, was once a prosecutor. She uses her experience to good effect in this interesting cross between domestic noir and legal thriller. Chloe Taylor is a hotshot magazine editor in New York. Her husband, Adam, was once married to her older sister, Nicky, and Chloe is now a caring stepmother to their son, Ethan. She has persuaded Adam to leave his badly paid job as a federal prosecutor to earn much more money in the private sector. They have a great life, with an apartment in Manhattan and a house in East Hampton. Of course, nothing is ever perfect. Both of them had difficult childhoods, while Nicky has drug and alcohol problems. Chloe, like many successful women who are perceived to be challenging male hegemony, has countless internet trolls. When a murder takes place at the house in East Hampton, all the cracks in her life open up and everything is called into question. Burke handles the secrets and revelations well and keeps the tension high until the last page. She also shows that one of the fundamental tragedies of the human condition is the biological necessity for people to have children before they have understood their own psychologies or those of their partners, so that emotional problems can be handed down from generation to generation.
Chris Brookmyre’s exploration of conspiracy and family dysfunction takes place at the Temple family’s holiday house in Portugal. Traumatised and fractured sixteen years ago by the disappearance from there of a toddler, Niamh, they have reconvened after the funeral of the patriarch, Max. The prologue makes it clear that someone killed Max with an insulin injection, although his death was officially put down to a heart attack. Brookmyre’s narrative moves between 2002 and 2018, establishing the characters and gradually revealing their secrets and their differing relationships with Max, as well as their dealings with the owner of the neighbouring villa, Vince, who is supposed to be joining his new wife, their baby and their temporary nanny there. The three mysteries – what happened to Niamh, who killed Max and what Vince is up to – are woven together in a complicated but satisfying tale.
Writing historical fiction entails walking a tightrope between authenticity and appealing to modern readers. In The King’s Evil, the latest instalment in his James Marwood series, Andrew Taylor dances along the high wire with ease, offering straightforward outlines of the politics of Charles II’s reign and intriguing practical details of life at the time without overloading the novel with facts, explanations or archaic dialogue.
With London still in ruins following the Great Fire, Taylor reacquaints us with Marwood and Cat Lovett. Lovett is a great character, perhaps the most modern-seeming in the series, with a career as a draughtswoman in an architect’s office and enough determination and brains to fight off threats to her physical and emotional wellbeing. Her aunt asks Marwood to warn her to hide from a man who hates her and has evidence that might result in her being put to death. Many other people, both powerful and needy, have an interest in the case and Marwood must pick his way through them with care if he is not to put Lovett and himself at mortal risk.
The book is anchored in a wholly recognisable London with plenty of familiar street names and surviving landmarks. The plot is twisty, the characters engaging and the language easy for contemporary readers. Taylor’s novels have ranged from the dark Roth trilogy to the award-winning The American Boy. In his James Marwood series he is creating his sunniest work.