Dead Land by Sara Paretsky; Chemical Reaction by Fiona Erskine; Death of a Mermaid by Lesley Thomson; The Lizard by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart; Friends Don’t Lie by Cath Weeks; Venetian Gothic by Philip Gwynne Jones; Ash Mountain by Helen FitzGerald; The Bramble and the Rose by Tom Bouman; Who We Were by B M Carroll - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

May 2020 Crime Round-up

  • Sara Paretsky, 
  • Fiona Erskine, 
  • Lesley Thomson, 
  • Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, 
  • Cath Weeks, 
  • Philip Gwynne Jones, 
  • Helen FitzGerald, 
  • Tom Bouman, 
  • B M Carroll

Dead Land

By Sara Paretsky

Hodder & Stoughton 416pp £20 order from our bookshop

Anyone who knows Sara Paretsky’s work will be reassured that her private investigator, V I Warshawski, is still putting her body on the line as she tracks the corrupt, the exploitative, the greedy and the murderous. In this, the latest instalment in Paretsky’s invigorating series, Warshawski comes into contact with a destitute musician living on the streets of Chicago and is pulled into an investigation that takes her out of the city and into the Kansas countryside, teaching her yet more about human cruelty, in particular in Pinochet’s Chile. At one moment, Warshawski confides in the reader, ‘I myself hate being told what to do, especially unsolicited advice about what is good for me … At the same time, though, I can’t bear to leave wounded people by the side of the road.’ If you identify with that, this novel will give you a great deal.

Chemical Reaction

By Fiona Erskine

Point Blank 432pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Dr Jaq Silver, a chemical engineer who starred in Fiona Erskine’s first novel, The Chemical Detective, returns in this adventure, which at one level concerns a string of stolen Chinese artefacts. But it is also about the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the damage done to China’s agricultural land, renewable energy, torture, insurance fraud, strippers, acrobatics and much more. We encounter Jaq steering a borrowed yacht through a storm in the Black Sea. As readers of The Chemical Detective will know, she is intelligent, well informed, resourceful and almost superhuman in her resilience. All her qualities are on show as she sails into the storm, which – naturally – she survives, though the yacht does not. Its owner demands that she compensate him for the destruction of his expensive toy and when she admits that she can’t requires her to go to China to investigate a factory part-owned by one of his clients. Complicating her life is her need to find money to pay the care home fees of her mother, who has dementia. So she goes to China. Throughout, her experiences are explained in scientific terms. Even during a sex scene, Erskine finds time to tell us: ‘Phenylalanine, the essential α-amino acid C9H11NO2 Jaq had ingested with her dinner of egg noodles, was undergoing rapid oxidation to C9H11NO3. Tyrosine, one of the twenty standard amino acids used by cells to synthesise proteins, was in turn oxidising to C9H11NO4. Levodopa, a short-lived intermediary, expelled a molecule of CO2 to make C8H11NO2.’ No one else writes with the knowledge or brio of Erskine.

Death of a Mermaid

By Lesley Thomson

Head of Zeus 400pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The Mermaids were a gang of friends at a Catholic convent school in Newhaven. They are brought together again as adults by the death of Frederica’s mother. Frederica, who goes by the name of ‘Freddy’, has been living with Sarah, a rich, possessive lawyer, in Liverpool; Toni is a detective inspector in Newhaven and has hooked up with one of Freddy’s brothers; Mags is a single librarian devoted to the church and to Julian of Norwich; and Karen, who was expelled from the mermaids at school, runs a mobile fish van belonging to Freddy’s brothers. The younger of these, Ricky, is in charge of the family’s fleet of trawlers, while the other, Andy, deals with everything onshore. Both blame Freddy for abandoning them more than twenty years ago, having no idea that their late father threw her out of the house and told her never to return when he discovered she was gay. When one of the women is murdered, all the antagonisms in this close-knit group tighten and worse ensues. What seems at first to be a conventional closed-society murder mystery expands into an exploration of the harm that can be visited on individuals by repression and the criminality that childhood damage can cause.

The Lizard

By Dugald Bruce-Lockhart

Muswell Press 306pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

A petulant and irresponsible undergraduate goes on his own to Greece to spite the girlfriend who has just dumped him. On the ferry to the island of Paros, he falls in with a group of young revellers, off their heads with exuberance, drink and drugs. He wakes up to find himself alone on the island, without money or his passport and covered in vomit. As he struggles to find somewhere to live and funds to live on, he meets up again with one of the ferry gang and is offered both a job and shelter. The job is disreputable rather than illegal and he takes it, only to face disaster and serious peril. During his attempt to escape and nail the bad guys, our shabby hero belatedly shows some care for his fellow human beings. This novel is horrible, atmospheric and gripping.

Friends Don’t Lie

By Cath Weeks

Piatkus 384pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Cath Weeks’s fourth novel is an almost entirely female story, though there are several male characters who play important parts in the plot. Melissa Silk is one of a group of six friends – three couples – living on the Dorset coast. Melissa is hurt when Rachel asks her not to join the group’s next planned kayaking expedition but to fake a migraine so that no one will know she was deliberately excluded. When a storm blows up and one of the others drowns, Melissa’s lies and Rachel’s machinations lead to suspicion and ever greater hurt. Mother–daughter hostilities loom, as do secrets from the past. The sense of suffocation that comes from living in a tiny community is well conveyed, but the ultimate twist not only seems unnecessary but also fails to work as well as the rest of the novel.

Venetian Gothic

By Philip Gwynne Jones

Constable 368pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

Readers of Philip Gwynne Jones’s series of Venetian crime novels will be glad to discover in the latest of them that Nathan Sutherland, the honorary British consul, is still living with Dotoressa Federica Ravagnan and Gramsci, his bad-tempered cat. The details of Venetian life in winter, when the hordes of tourists have left, are a delight, and it is easy to share Nathan’s pleasure in a caffè corretto here and a spritz there, with some delicious cicchetti. The crimes he investigates are less important but ingenious enough. In this instalment, he is forced to read the lesson at the English church on Sunday, which results in him chancing on a puzzlingly empty child’s coffin on the island of San Michele. His enquiries introduce him to one of Venice’s ancient families, still living in their palazzo, and ultimately lead to a terrifying encounter with a psychopath on one of the lagoon’s most dangerous abandoned islands. Pure pleasure.

Ash Mountain

By Helen FitzGerald

Orenda 210pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

The reality of life in Australia when bush fires are raging was revealed to the rest of the world in appalling detail in the autumn of 2019. By then, Helen FitzGerald had already been working on this novel for two years. It begins with Fran watching a reality television show in the house in Ash Mountain where she is caring for her father, who has been immobilised by a stroke. The town siren sounds to warn of approaching fire. Her two children – Dante, who was born when she was fifteen and is ‘proof of the failure of the Avian contraceptive device’, and the teenage Vonny – are elsewhere. Her father urges her to leave him and find them. FitzGerald splits her narrative between the day of the fire, ten days before the fire and thirty years before the fire. Some of the 876 people who live in Ash Mountain try to outrun the flames, others take refuge in buildings and others still in water tanks, where the water may boil around them. There is plenty of human depravity in the plot but none of that is as terrifyingly overmastering as the fire.

The Bramble and the Rose

By Tom Bouman

Faber & Faber 208pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

The township of Wild Thyme is deep in the Pennsylvania countryside. Roaming bears come close to human habitations and neighbours know far too much about each other’s business. Henry Farrell represents the law, and so it is he who is called on to investigate the death of a man whose body has been found headless and partly eaten. Farrell is recently married and there’s a baby on the way. He’s getting to grips with the strange idea of being happy. A skilled hunter, easier on his own than with other people and laconic in public, he shares his interesting take on life with the reader, at one moment telling us that we’ve all got to die at some point and if we go feeding a bear then something good has come out of our death. Bears are by no means the only predators in Wild Thyme, of course, and Farrell has to identify the human ones, disentangling the worst from the rest. Written with a naive portentousness that captures the splendour and terror of the natural world, The Bramble and the Rose is an arresting contribution to the crime genre.

Who We Were

By B M Carroll

Viper 416pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

Twenty years ago a group of Australian schoolchildren wrote entries in their yearbook, predicting what they would be doing in the future. Now one of them is organising a reunion and in the process reignites old hostilities and resentments. At first these emerge as minor irritations and embarrassments but soon actual violence takes place. The revelations are well handled, as are the accounts of how life has turned out for members of the group. Some are marking time in mildly disappointing jobs and marriages; others have done well at work but not in love; one is homeless and struggling. The revelation of the killer’s identity and motives works and the conversational style and effective characterisation make for easy reading.

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