A few years ago the British journalist and campaigner Henry Porter wrote a haunting novel that was, in effect, an awful warning of a serious threat to freedom from the use of drones – small and ever smaller flying objects that spy, record and nowadays also kill. As the technology becomes ever more sophisticated, so these drones have become an increasingly terrifying tool in the hands of the powerful, and not simply as a means of surveillance. By pressing a button they can kill enemies or keep track of suspects on the other side of the world. In Unmanned, an American Air Force pilot is moved from active service to the Nevada desert to wage war from a safe distance. He drops out of piloting drones and later hitches up with journalists who want to expose the dangers of these machines. The twists and turns of the adventure story are readable and forgettable; the information about what we are coming to is horrific and haunting. The book portrays a new world, but not a brave one.
A Swedish aircraft, bound for New York, takes off from Stockholm with more than four hundred passengers on board. Twenty minutes into the flight one of the cabin attendants finds a note in the first-class lavatory. It is a bomb threat. Unless the Swedish authorities revoke one particular deportation order, everyone on the plane will die. Much of the narrative here follows meetings between various secret and less secret committees and the inevitable arguments between government officials, both Swedish and foreign. There is not very much scope for action in a story of this kind, where those potentially fighting back don’t have the space to swing a cat or, for that matter, a decent-sized gun. Obviously, in popular fiction of this kind, the final crash is going to be averted; it is the way the story is told that makes one read on.
This is an old-style academic mystery such as we have not seen in this country since the days of Michael Innes. It reminded me what good reading those books were, with their unlikely murder victims and motives, police officers unencumbered by rules of procedure, and brilliantly clever donnish detectives. In this book, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Henry Spearman, teaching for a year at a small college a long way from his Harvard home, gets caught up in the unnatural death of a very successful artist and uses (but also explains) the principles of academic economics to work his way to identifying the culprit. The book is preachy, teachy, intellectually demanding and completely unlike any other crime fiction being published at present. I loved it.
This is a terrific book. I have not felt the same about all six volumes in this bestselling historical series, but this episode of the hunchback lawyer Shardlake’s investigation makes a thrilling story. We are in the last months of the reign of Henry VIII. The queen, Catherine Parr, summons Shardlake to help the search for a missing notebook in which she has written dangerous thoughts about religion. She is terrified that it will be found and shown to her husband, who, by this stage in his life, is grotesquely fat, disgustingly ill and only too ready to condemn independent thinkers and heretics to torture and execution. The book opens with a hideously graphic description of burning at the stake and it continues with quite a lot of blood, guts, amputation and death. It’s a convincing account of a cruel and fascinating period and a very exciting read.
This is an oddity which I would not have started had I realised that it was the third in a trilogy. The subject is the assassination of Sweden’s prime minister Olof Palme on 28 February 1986. This event apparently traumatised every Swede, since the guilty party has never been identified. In these six hundred pages or so of fiction combined with fact, Lars Martin Johansson, chief of the National Bureau, has reopened the unsolved murder. He assembles a team of his best detectives and tells them to start from scratch on this cold but famous case. They do, and come up with new information. They even reach a conclusion. The problem for British readers is that while most of us have heard of the murder, very few will know what happened afterwards or understand the contemporary references that appear throughout the book. Presumably a good deal of material is derived from actual history, since we are told that the author is Scandinavia’s most renowned criminologist, an adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice and a professor at the Swedish National Police Board. For the outsider, it’s impossible to tell where reporting turns into inventing. Either way, I found the book heavy-going.
Colleen, a prosperous East Coast matron, arrives in a part of America she had never imagined: North Dakota, a landscape white with snow, with great gleaming black lakes and flares of orange light. Colleen’s son is missing somewhere in this strange landscape; so is another young man, the son of a very different type of woman, feisty, ingenious Shay from California. This oddly matched couple, having been brushed off by their sons’ employer and the local police, go it alone in combination. Colleen’s self-assurance and money and Shay’s self-reliance and sympathy make them a very strong team, but they have to learn to accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses and understand their different backgrounds. The hunt, chase and crime part of this book is very well done, but even better is the way we watch and understand the changing relationship between the two women and the parallel changes in themselves. An excellent novel.
Finland has not featured much in the recent blooming of the subgenre now known as ‘Nordic noir’ or ‘Scandicrime’, probably because there are not many translators of the unique language. But for those who read Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish thrillers in English there is a strong family likeness to be discerned. I felt comfortably at home with Hiekkapelto’s descriptions of the life of immigrants, asylum seekers, police procedure and the jobs people do in a country long past the days of sex discrimination. Her heroine, Anna Fekete, was a child refugee from the Yugoslavian wars. Having achieved an education and Finnish nationality, she has joined the police and is just beginning her career as an investigator in a seaside town when a young woman’s body is found – the first victim of (as is soon revealed) a serial killer. With distractions from her dropout brother and demanding mother, Anna has to deal with a hostile police partner and her own deep-seated terrors. An absorbing read.
Some of the best and most original contemporary police procedurals are by Graham Hurley, and this is a very good one. It is the product of much research into the Mau Mau Uprising in colonial Kenya and into the way our society looks after the mentally ill.
After the death of Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls a Pinkerton agent from New York meets the Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones near the waterfalls. Returning to London together, the two men must catch the new criminal mastermind who has filled the vacuum left by Moriarty. Jones tries to emulate Holmes’s well-known methods. The plot is gripping and the writing most readable. In fact I must make a confession: I would rather read Horowitz than his model, Arthur Conan Doyle.