Will Carver’s latest novel is about groups of people who kill themselves together, even though they have not met before the day of their death. The suggestion is that someone is drawing them into a suicide cult, which, thanks to social media, is set to spread from London across the world. The cool authorial voice provides many interesting facts about real cults, mass murderers and serial killers as it describes the lives and sorrows of the people who are about to die. These brief digressions add up to far more than a dark, intense exploration of mass suicide. Laying bare our 21st-century weaknesses and dilemmas, Carver has created a highly original state-of-the-nation novel.
Not even the goriest and most melodramatic serial-killer chiller is as disturbing as Jacqueline Ward’s second psychological thriller, which deals with the violence so many people face at home. Her lead character, Ria Taylor, runs a refuge for abused women and their children, having been moved to take up the work by her own childhood experiences. Her clients’ cases are described in convincing detail, as is her struggle to maintain the local authority funding on which the refuge depends. To add to Ria’s nightmares, a stalker is harassing her. How to Play Dead is horrifying in its reflection of reality for many women – and men.
Finding a way to capture human thoughts has always interested the international spying community – and, therefore, crime writers. Margery Allingham tackled the subject in The Mind Readers in 1965 and now Nick Cook, who was a senior editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, has written The Grid. Like Allingham’s East Anglian researchers, the Americans in Cook’s novel use individuals with brain injuries and disorders to explore extrasensory perception. The possible spoils are huge.
Cook’s first-person narrator is psychologist Josh Cain, who advises the president. As Cain and his sidekick track the bad guys, the narrative moves into areas of the unconscious and emotion, adding an entertaining extra layer to the convincing descriptions of weapons, machines and law enforcement hierarchies that make up the more conventional aspects of this novel.
Postnatal depression affects huge numbers of people and yet has not featured in much crime fiction. Samantha M Bailey helps to put that right in her first novel. Nicole Markham is a successful and meticulous businesswoman in Chicago. After a tragic event in her teens, she has never wanted children but, finding herself pregnant, tells her husband that she plans to keep the baby after all. We meet Nicole at Grand/State station where, dishevelled and distressed, she hands her child to a stranger before jumping to her death on the tracks. Morgan, the woman left holding the baby, is arrested on suspicion of murder and has to clear her name. At that point the novel goes back in time to show Nicole at work and then grappling with motherhood, moving between past and present to keep up the tension. The identity of the ultimate villain is obvious from the character’s first few appearances and the feel-good ending is a little too cosy, but these are small quibbles. This fast-paced novel deals well with a common and serious affliction.
Part of Death in the East, the latest instalment in Abir Mukherjee’s series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee, takes place in 1905 in the East End of London, where Wyndham investigates the murder of a woman he once knew very well. These sections are interspersed with Wyndham’s experiences seventeen years later, when he is undergoing the torment of trying to cure his opium addiction in an ashram in Assam. Another murder takes place in a neighbouring village and appears to be linked to the 1905 killing.
If you can ignore this massive coincidence, the novel has much to offer. Mukherjee’s style is elegantly conversational, his research is convincing and one of his murder methods is ingenious. The relationship between Wyndham and Banerjee has always been part of the charm of the series and in this novel it becomes even more interesting. Times and attitudes are changing in British India: Banerjee is no longer amenable, for example, to the lazy nickname given to him by those who could not pronounce his first name, Surendranath.
The Guardians are a small group of lawyers and campaigners who investigate miscarriages of justice in the USA and work to have their clients exonerated. They have very little money, pay themselves almost nothing and work harder than any million-dollar partner in a big law firm. John Grisham has based his fictional campaigners on a real group and the main investigation in this story on an actual case that has yet to be solved.
No one with any interest in justice could resist this story, which Grisham has structured with all his familiar skill. The good characters are sympathetic, the wicked are truly revolting and the rage is wholly understandable. My only moment of doubt came as the lead investigator, having seen one of his clients saved from execution at the last minute, tells the man he’s convinced is the real killer that he will soon be in the innocent man’s place. I found it hard to believe that Grisham’s hero would want anyone to be subjected to judicial murder.
Jessica Eames has set her first novel firmly within the family – which is where most violent crime occurs. Nicola is a menopausal widow living in the annexe of her in-laws’ house, trying to deal with a jealous sister-in-law and an uncomfortable relationship with her brother-in-law. She also has to get back on good terms with her adult daughter, whose grief at the death of her father has made her very difficult, as has her dislike of Nicola’s new lover, whose presence often seems intrusive. When one of the players in this domestic drama dies, all the others come under suspicion. The narrative is fairly static and the witness statements, explanations and thoughts of the surviving characters can drag, but the ending is well managed.
After the disappointing A Legacy of Spies, it is a treat to have John le Carré back on form in Agent Running in the Field, which features a clever plot, fury at official duplicity that is easy to share and characters unforgettably captured in a phrase or two. In the middle of all the Brexit machinations, Nat, back in London after a lifetime overseas, has been parked in a dingy outpost of the secret service and is probably on his way to redundancy. On his staff is a magnificent probationer, Florence, who is competent, belligerent and beautiful – perhaps too much so for her superiors, who turn down her pitch to set up surveillance on a dodgy oligarch whose money is being laundered under the aegis of a woman at the heart of the British establishment. At the same time, Ed, a cross, lanky loner, challenges Nat to a series of badminton matches at a Battersea sports club. Le Carré tells us at the start that Nat is soon to be interrogated about his meetings with Ed, but the exact nature of Ed’s transgression is kept under wraps for a good long time. Le Carré’s account of the relationships between these three, as well as of those between Nat, his wife and their difficult daughter, is inspiriting in its wit and perception.
Mark Spencer is a botanist who was working at the Natural History Museum when he was first asked to help the police determine how long a body had been lying at the site where it had been found. That marked the start of a distinguished career in forensic botany. He is at pains throughout this nonfiction book about his profession to avoid the kind of sensationalism and simplification that are common in television murder dramas. His account of his work will be of use to anyone interested in the real world of crime scenes and courts, and should be read by policy-makers in charge of police budgets and training. But he is not the kind of writer who can make his words sing and is given to writing flat sentences that add little to the reader’s experience, which is a pity.
A curiosity from the past. Ian Rankin writes in the introduction to this reprint of his 1990 high-tech thriller that he was experimenting at the time with what kind of writer he wanted to be. Many in his army of fans have encouraged him to rerelease this novel, telling him, ‘It’s better than you think it is.’ It gives an insight into the development of a writer who has gone on to great things.