Windmill Hill by Lucy Atkins; The Scarlet Papers by Matthew Richardson; The End of the Game by Holly Watt; The Last Dance by Mark Billingham; Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen (Translated from Danish by Megan E Turney); No One Saw a Thing by Andrea Mara; A Good Night to Kill by Amen Alonge; The Mill House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (Translated from Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong); Don’t Look Back by Jo Spain - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

May 2023 Crime Round-up

  • Lucy Atkins, 
  • Matthew Richardson, 
  • Holly Watt, 
  • Mark Billingham, 
  • Jenny Lund Madsen (Translated from Danish by Megan E Turney), 
  • Andrea Mara, 
  • Amen Alonge, 
  • Yukito Ayatsuji (Translated from Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong), 
  • Jo Spain

Windmill Hill

By Lucy Atkins

Quercus 368pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Although there are two violent deaths at the heart of Windmill Hill, there is no formal investigation. Instead, the narrative deals with eighty-something Astrid, once a celebrated classical actor married to Magnus Fellowes, who became a Hollywood star. Something terrible happened, Astrid was blamed and had some kind of breakdown, and they divorced. Magnus went on to marry two other women and is now dying in his son’s house in Scotland while a writer ghosts his memoirs. Astrid is living in a grotty cottage beside a semi-derelict but beloved windmill with Mrs Baker, who was once her cleaner and was also involved in an unspecified terrible incident. Any detective work must be done by the reader as the mesmerising story unfolds. Beautifully written, this is a perceptive exploration of old age, guilt, shame and, above all, the way some women have traditionally been expected to accept responsibility for crimes committed by men.

The Scarlet Papers

By Matthew Richardson

Michael Joseph 592pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This magnificent spy novel sees disappointed academic Max summoned to a secret interview with Scarlet King, an elderly woman he has never met. His expertise being the history of the intelligence services, he knows that she was once the most senior woman in MI6 and one of the greatest specialists on the Soviet Union. The invitation is irresistible, but he is naturally suspicious. After all, anyone could hire an elderly actor to pretend to be the legendary spy and suck him into some dangerous scam. But she tempts him by offering him her memoirs, which he dreams of using to secure a multi-million-pound book deal. As in any novel set in the world of spies, nothing is straightforward, everyone is watching everyone else and few people ever let go of the whole truth. Richardson uses plenty of real names to provide authenticity, from John le Carré and Vasili Mitrokhin to Sergei Skripal, Maurice Oldfield and even Churchill’s confidant Professor Frederick Lindemann. He draws on his own experiences as a researcher and speechwriter in Westminster, with the result that his political and civil service characters behave in ways that are entirely convincing. Amid the multiple deceptions, there is one oddity in the plot, which gives me the perfect excuse to reread the whole book.

The End of the Game

By Holly Watt

Raven 368pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Holly Watt’s investigative journalist Casey Benedict has an appealing mixture of competence and sensitivity. She will take on anyone, however dangerous, and assume responsibility for any damage her stories may do. In this outing, she comes up against gambling companies and algorithm-driven hedge funds, exploring the ways in which the financially powerful manipulate others to make ever larger profits. The human cost of their activities is far greater than that borne by the subjects of Benedict’s investigations, but she still worries about the ethics of what she does. Her own private grief at being the barely acknowledged daughter of a man who has another family underpins her activities. Well informed and convincing, Watt’s novel shines an uncomfortable light on what some people are prepared to do to protect and further their own interests.

The Last Dance

By Mark Billingham

Sphere 400pp £22 order from our bookshop

Mark Billingham has (perhaps temporarily) retired his grumpy DI, Tom Thorne, along with the multiply tattooed and pierced pathologist Phil Hendricks. In their place he gives us DS Declan Miller and DS Sara Xiu. Dec is the most irritating possible colleague, endlessly wisecracking and sarcastic, as well as shouting at the radio when he hears something he disagrees with, but he makes a surprisingly appealing character, nicely balanced with Sara, who is impeccably professional but in her private life occasionally lets rip with drink and heavy metal music before taking a stranger home for a one-night stand. Dec’s wife, also a police officer, has recently been murdered and he finds himself talking to her a lot as he deals with his grief, while investigating the shooting of two men in adjoining hotel rooms, caring for his pet rats and returning to the ballroom dancing club to which his wife introduced him. Billingham’s mixture of comedy and hard-hitting crime investigation works well and, encouragingly, is not remotely cosy.

Thirty Days of Darkness

By Jenny Lund Madsen (Translated from Danish by Megan E Turney)

Orenda 300pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

A Danish literary novelist, Hannah, is suffering from writer’s block, as well as loneliness, misanthropy and a seething jealousy of bestselling genre writers, whose work she despises. An altercation with one of them at a literary festival ends with her announcing that she will write a crime novel in the space of a month. Her agent arranges for her to board with a woman in Iceland while she plots and writes the novel. A real murder is committed in the local village and Hannah takes on the role of investigator, in spite of the resistance of the single police officer in the area. Red herrings, assaults and terrible weather combine to frustrate Hannah’s efforts, but everything that happens teaches her a little more about real life and writing. This is an entertaining account of literary feuding, family dysfunction and small-town life, which also deals seriously with serious crime.

No One Saw a Thing

By Andrea Mara

Bantam 384pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Sive is a journalist, married to high-flying barrister Aaron and mother to three children. They are in London for Aaron’s reunion with university friends, where he hopes ‘to see who was winning in life’. Standing on a Tube platform with the pram holding her youngest, Sive fiddles with her phone as the train arrives. She urges her two little girls onto the train, only to see the doors close before she can join them with the pram. So begins a nightmare. Two-year-old Bea is safely handed to a security guard at the next station, but six-year-old Faye disappears. Interspersed with descriptions of Sive’s wait for news of Faye’s whereabouts and the police investigation are passages from the days leading up to the reunion. This is a clever tale about a modern family under extraordinary pressure.

A Good Night to Kill

By Amen Alonge

Quercus 448pp £20 order from our bookshop

The gangland wars to control the supply of illegal drugs in London provide the backdrop to Amen Alonge’s powerful thriller. The two main factions are the Russian Lenkov family and that of Michael Deacon, who has political ambitions. Both groups have informers everywhere, as well as traitors and greedy allies hoping to get their hands on the goods. Years ago, Deacon infiltrated his younger brother, Alan, into the Metropolitan Police. Even though he has now retired, he still has plenty of contacts there. Alan is an attractive character, in spite of his fondness for violence, but he has nothing on his foster son, who is brilliant, patient and much more reluctant to kill than anyone else in this fascinating novel, which moves almost as fast as the many bullets its characters fire at each other.

The Mill House Murders

By Yukito Ayatsuji (Translated from Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong)

Pushkin Vertigo 256pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

The son of a famous painter, terribly disfigured and disabled in a car crash, has retreated to a magnificent but peculiar house he’s had built in the mountains of Japan. His father’s visionary paintings are displayed in galleries within the house and his beautiful, much younger wife has an apartment of her own there. He lives masked and gloved to hide his injuries and she never leaves the house or sees anything of life beyond it. In 1985, a small group of devotees of the artist’s work convene at the house and people die. The following year another group arrive, this time with the detective Shimada. While he is in the house, someone else dies and a painting goes missing. As the dialogue shows, there is no way for the latest killer to escape the house unseen. This chilly, elegant tribute to the locked-room mysteries of the golden age of crime writing offers a challenge in clue spotting to readers who enjoy pitting their wits against an author’s.

Don’t Look Back

By Jo Spain

Quercus 400pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Patient, gentle Luke falls in love with Rose, the survivor of a brutal marriage that has left her terrified of men and any form of close contact. Luke’s care is rewarded and she marries him. One day, she turns up at his workplace with their luggage to whisk him off on an impromptu holiday in the Caribbean. A few days into the trip, she reveals the reason they had to flee London. Her ex-husband turned up and she killed him, leaving his body in Luke’s bathroom. An old lover of Luke’s now works with battered women. He phones her to ask for help in sorting out the mess. Spain writes well about difficult relationships and the novel skips along. Some sleight of hand towards the end dilutes the emotional intensity, but a twist in an important subplot works well.

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