Peter May returns to the Outer Hebrides in this exciting and informative story about lethal jealousy on the small island where Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane have started up and made a great success of a company weaving the infinitely desirable Ranish tweed. It is as durable and warm as Harris tweed, but lighter, softer and prettier; whether such a fabric actually exists, we are not told. The couple are in Paris, having become part of the world of haute couture, when Ruairidh and the woman Niamh believes to be his mistress are killed by a car bomb. Niamh takes what is left of Ruairidh’s body home to Lewis, where she finds herself discovering things she never knew about her husband and about the island that has always been her home. As always, May gives us fully rounded characters and a carefully worked out if not super-exciting plot. He is knowledgeable and interesting about Paris and about the business side of clothing design, but it is the vivid, precisely described island setting that will stay in my memory – a bleak, uncomfortable and even dangerous place, loved and cherished by people who really know it: the permanent residents and those who, like May, have taken the trouble to explore and learn about it.
Attica Locke’s fourth book is an outstandingly good crime story and readers who enjoy following the detecting process will not be disappointed. Darren is a Texas Ranger and he is black. He gets involved in a case in a small town in east Texas, where two dead bodies have washed up in a bayou. One of the deceased was a black lawyer from Chicago, the other was a young white woman who lived nearby. These discoveries ratchet up racial tensions to a dangerous level. Although he is a member of the most revered law enforcement agency in the state, even wearing his Texas Ranger badge Darren is disrespected by the local white supremacists. Meanwhile, he is in trouble with his boss, so cannot rely on anyone else. The book is more than a simple murder mystery. Locke uses language with unusual elegance and her characters spring lifelike from the page. What is more, her writing deserves attention from historians and sociologists: her portrayal of race relations in the one-time slave-owning states is vivid, subtle and tragic. The denouement for Darren is a sad one: ‘He’d taken an oath to be a cop. He got it confused sometimes, on which side of the law he belonged, couldn’t always remember when it was safe for a black man to follow the rules.’
In September 2014, John Grisham read an article investigating ‘The Law-School Scam’ and was inspired to write this novel. It is based on the fact, revealed in that article, that the deregulation of law schools in the USA has resulted in the proliferation of substandard institutions teaching the subject, the graduates of which will never be employed by respectable firms and will leave college with enormous debts. In this story, three students realise they have been conned and set out to cheat the system that cheated them. Purporting to be qualified attorneys, they take on clients and cases and even win some. But nothing they do is as easy as it looks and they soon find themselves forced to flee the country. However, the fugitives’ final crime makes them rich, so they may well end up living happily ever after. None of the main characters is very likeable, but that does not really matter in this campaigning novel.
Sophie lives in a beautiful house in rural Norfolk while her banker husband, Leo, spends weekdays in their London flat. They have three healthy, clever and cooperative children, a Romanian au pair, a cleaning lady, an impractical Porsche, a Mercedes SUV and the regulation black Labrador. Sophie and a friend have started an upmarket gift shop. The book opens with Sophie writing a smug, falsely modest round robin letter to send with her Christmas cards, undeterred by the fact that for the past two years some unidentified recipient has sent one back with insults scribbled all over it. Things go wrong when Sophie finds evidence that Leo has been having an affair, and get worse when she confronts the neighbour she believes to be ‘the other woman’. To list the chapter of accidents that follows would be to give away the plot, but as one disaster leads to the next, Sophie’s impulsive and idiotic behaviour becomes ever more irritating. I assume that Wilson intended readers to lose sympathy with her. This is a clever and enjoyable novel, a most original take on the fashionable subgenre of crime fiction about ‘girls’ on trains or in the house next door.
Anatomy of a Scandal features another good-wife-style heroine called Sophie, this one married to a successful Tory politician. She stands by her man when he is accused of raping one of his aides in the Palace of Westminster. The narrative is divided between the stories of Sophie and Kate, the prosecuting counsel, whose background turns out to be unexpected and relevant to this particular case. Kate and Sophie have some shared history, but their paths diverged. Both have changed as they matured. Sophie, once a high-flying undergraduate, has become a full-time wife and mother who does what her husband wants, though he does not seem to have altered in any way since university. The posh Oxford undergraduate, who was a member of an elite drinking club (here not called the Bullingdon), has seamlessly become an MP and junior minister – an entitled man to whom everything has come easily. Even standing in the dock accused of a serious crime hardly dents his self-confidence. This is a good story, well told.
Bob Skinner, a Scottish policeman who rose to the rank of chief constable before retiring to take on private investigations and profitable directorships, happens to be in the Palace of Westminster (discussing whether he will accept a peerage) when the prime minister is found, close to death, with a letter opener driven through her skull. That very afternoon she had been due to make an immensely controversial statement, the contents of which had been kept secret even from senior Cabinet ministers. Skinner is called in on the initiative of his ex-wife, who just happens to be the head of MI5. With an old friend, a senior figure in the Metropolitan Police, he gets into all the private corners of the Palace of Westminster – this novel is very informative about the building, though perhaps less reliable about the behaviour of those who work there. However, it is Skinner’s conduct that I found unconvincing. He is aggressive, arrogant and undeferential. Such qualities may be useful for a detective, but surely not for holders of more senior posts, for whom manners and diplomatic skills do matter.