The narrator of Umberto Eco’s new novel is an unsuccessful journalist who, with half a dozen other failed hacks, is recruited to work on a new daily paper in Milan in 1992. Only the narrator and the editor know that it is never to be published. The dummy runs are intended to have an influence on the editor’s rich patron, a media magnate. As the journalists discuss and construct the pages, excited by their involvement in creating a free, independent newspaper, they accept ever-increasing limitations on their activities to keep their financier happy. After discussing a good many subjects and anecdotes, they eventually concentrate on one story in particular: the last days of Mussolini and the question of whether his death was faked. Eco’s political satire describes an Italy in which there is no shame, where corruption is authorised and Mafia leaders take their seats in parliament. The book has been hailed as ‘the publishing event of the year 2015’ and has topped the bestseller lists in Italy. Its publishers say it is ‘fuelled by media hoaxes, mafiosi, love, gossip and murder’ and ‘reverberates with the clash of forces that have shaped Italy’ since the Second World War. Prepublication critics have raved about ‘this brainy, funny, neatly lacerating thriller’. Perhaps those adjectives are deserved. But to me, none of the characters appeared any more than a list of characteristics, and none of their actions seemed any more sensible than those in a bad dream. Although I am obviously in a minority, I simply could not see the point of this short book.
Detective Inspector Rio Wray is black and female, and has made it to senior-officer rank in the Metropolitan Police. The female assistant commissioner is turning her into a poster girl for gender and race equality in the force, telling her, ‘I’ve always thought that you were the one … who was going to finally mark out a place for women and ethnic minorities in the force.’ But the promised promotion will evaporate if the current, brutal case is not solved in two weeks. It’s a heavy responsibility for Wray: a gang of violent thieves from east London is killing whole families. Theirs is a well-orchestrated scheme, but there is one living witness – a teenage girl who survived the massacre of her family. Can Wray keep her safe, or even alive? This is a vivid and original take on the police procedural and a very enjoyable novel.
Retired inspector John Rebus can no more keep away from police work than his author can let him go. The only visible differences in the set-up here are that DI Malcolm Fox (formerly seen policing the police) has become a conventional police detective, though he is still much disliked by other cops, and that Rebus’s sergeant, Siobhan Clarke, is now a detective inspector and Rebus’s boss – in theory. As always, however, he follows his own instincts and many years’ worth of experience as he digs into the overlapping cases of death threats to a senior lawyer – the lord advocate of Scotland, no less – and to an old enemy, a career criminal. Rankin has been at the top of the thriller-writing tree for years and Rebus will be welcomed back by countless fans worldwide.
Mari Hannah has had a varied career and her partner was once a murder detective, which perhaps explains why she pulls some punches about the police force here. Corruption is suspected, but since it is the book’s hero, Ryan, who is the target of these rumours, the reader knows it’s all a mistake. Ryan cuts himself loose from officialdom in an attempt to find out why his boss, disgraced but undoubtedly innocent, has first been refused parole and then, on his way to prison, been kidnapped by armed men. Has he been abducted by criminals, as his friends believe, or escaped with accomplices? Further investigations, which include a journey to Norway, reveal the truth. This story is based on actual experience, like so many contemporary crime novels. It is relatively mild, as far as language and explicit violence go, and despite or because of that it is curiously gripping and enjoyable.
When a parcel containing a severed limb is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she and her boss, the private detective Cormoran Strike, assume that the message, whatever it may be, is intended for him. Strike is a former soldier with a prosthetic leg, one of those heroic disabled people who won’t let pain or clumsiness limit their activities. He endures a good deal of physical punishment in this tale of many murders. Robin’s problems are of a different sort. Should she go ahead with her long-planned and now imminent wedding, or should she concentrate on her job and realise her lifelong ambition to become a detective? This story is built on a secure foundation of detailed research and is very knowledgeably written. Readers learn about such niceties as the cause and effect of unnecessary amputation, the condition of human body parts in various circumstances and the process of their decomposition. But the book is more than a straightforward detective story. Underlying the subtle but conventional mystery plot is an indignant portrayal of our society’s treatment of ex-service personnel and other disabled people. The prose style is sometimes a little clunky and some of the characters tend to merge into an undifferentiated mass, but Robert Galbraith – that is, J K Rowling – again demonstrates that rare, inexplicable and indefinable gift: once started, one simply can’t put her books down.
Andrew Martin must have had lots of fun researching this enjoyable tale, which is set in the haunts of the super-rich Russians living in London and in Home Counties palaces. He describes their exotic lifestyle with the detachment of a lepidopterist demonstrating the behaviour and habitat of a butterfly, shifting comfortably between Mayfair and the French Riviera, with sessions on board private planes and superyachts and useful information about acceptable tailors and shirtmakers (Marks & Spencer is not among them), the only wearable overcoats or mackintoshes (Aquascutum or Burberry) and which London restaurant provides a ‘serious lunch’ (Le Gavroche). The plot concerns jewellery theft and murder, but it seemed, to me at least, less interesting than its setting.
You know what to expect from a thriller by Robin Cook: devious and corrupt medics, arcane technicalities about medicine and a nice, smug feeling about a health service that is not run for profit. In this one, Lynn and Edward, brave and indefatigable final-year medical students, take on the university establishment when they realise that too many patients, including Lynn’s boyfriend, are suffering disastrous consequences from what should be routine surgery. In fact, they are being used as guinea pigs for unlicensed research without their consent. The baddies are the venal senior medics and their supporters, brutal Russian heavies paid for by Big Pharma. What can a pair of students do to fight them? The characters are cardboard cutouts and the plot is implausible, but Cook has the knack of grabbing a reader’s attention and, for a while, credulity.
‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.’ So when Inspector Hannah Scarlett and her team from the ‘cold case’ department arrive in a small Cumbrian village to reinvestigate the disappearance, three years previously, of a teenage girl, they take an interest in another young woman who went missing twenty years earlier. And then yet another teenager disappears. This is a well-plotted and well-told story by an author who is an authority on crime fiction of the so-called Golden Age, and whose own books, while very much of our time, are based on that period’s traditions and enhanced by his evident affection for the places they are set in. Highly recommended.