Set in Arctic Sweden in the mid-19th century, To Cook a Bear features the historical figure of Pastor Lars Levi Laestadius, who was a revivalist, a botanist and much else. Here he has rescued a Sami boy he found half starved, abused and homeless and is now teaching him to read and write. Jussi, the boy, becomes his faithful assistant and the two investigate the death of a young local woman. The sheriff is sure she committed suicide but, using methods made familiar to us by Dr Joseph Bell and others, the pastor and Jussi show that she did not. No one believes them. Soon it becomes clear that a serial killer is at work. At the same time the jealousies and feuds found in any small, impoverished community lead to suspicion of Jussi the outsider and to appalling cruelty.
Niemi knows the extraordinary world he’s writing about and makes it absolutely convincing. Jussi’s voice has a wonderful vividness: ‘When [the pastor] was in a good mood he was happy to reason with me; he would raise his elbows and form words with his hands, as if he carried his thoughts like an armful of unformed bread dough, a fermenting lump that had to be constantly kneaded and knocked back to prevent it dropping to the ground.’ Jussi’s ideas and language occasionally seem remarkably sophisticated for someone who has received such a short formal education, but the relationship between the pastor and the boy is one of the few aspects of this impressive novel that offers any optimism about the human race.
The latest contribution to the increasingly impressive range of Australian outback noir novels is set over the Christmas holidays in and around the rural town of Tiverton. Constable Hirschhausen (known as Hirsch) has been posted there in semi-disgrace after whistle-blowing on some corrupt colleagues. The local inhabitants range from the thoroughly decent and tolerant to the absolutely revolting. Life is hard for everyone and made harder by those who choose to commit crimes. Copper wire is stolen, animals are mutilated and killed, and people are shot. Hirsch has to work out which of the locals are dangerous and which are needy without much help from his superiors and with his old enemies’ hatred posing an ever-present threat. This is a splendid crime novel that is also an effective study of the different ways in which individuals manage pain and the impact this has on their families.
Few fictional scandals involving Parliament would surprise anyone these days, but Plague offers a humdinger. An unjustly disgraced senior civil servant, Cassandra Fortune, is moved from her dull job in procurement when the bodies of people with links to Parliament are found in odd locations around the West End of London. She is given a watching brief so that she can warn the government of any embarrassing revelations before they are made public, but her role becomes much more active and she is soon investigating the killings alongside Inspector Rowlands of the Met. Cassie is an odd mixture of quick-thinking competence and schoolgirlish romanticism, which leads her to make poor judgements. The novel is also a mixture: partly a well-researched and convincing guide to the Palace of Westminster and to the hidden rivers, sewers, passages and offices that lie beneath the streets of London, and partly a romantic thriller of a rather old-fashioned kind, full of sex and cruelty.
In a fast-gentrifying neighbourhood in Brooklyn, Theo joins forces with Sydney to gather information for a guided tour of the area that will give the real history of the place and its inhabitants rather than the whitewashed version provided by other tour guides. Sydney is exhausted and distressed by her mother’s illness and the endless bills that are pushed through her front door. Theo has been sacked by his employers and dumped by his rich girlfriend. They forge an unexpected bond and find out exactly what the predators circling the neighbourhood are actually up to. Alyssa Cole writes historical fiction and sci-fi romance and brings some of both genres to this fast-moving adventure.
Lee Child has announced that from now onwards the Jack Reacher novels will be written by his younger brother, Andrew. This is the handover title. The narrative follows the familiar pattern: Reacher gets off a Greyhound bus in a new town and sees someone being victimised. He wades in to take on the bad guys and follows through to see that right is done. This time the victim is a computer nerd, Rusty Rutherford. The villains are pleasurably awful, Rusty is appealing and Reacher is satisfyingly ice cold in combat and full of good human feelings when necessary. It works.
A woman with a secret and plenty of guilt to assuage is co-host at a luxurious chalet for hire in an isolated ski resort surrounded by challenging runs. The newly arrived party of guests is made up of the staff of and investors in Snoop, a successful music app. A huge buyout offer has been made but those with voting shares can’t agree on whether to accept it or not. The first disappearance among the guests could be down to an accident, but, as more go missing, it’s clear that someone devious and ruthless is at work. The app and the techies’ chatter are as a modern as they come but the revelation of the villain’s identity follows a long-established tradition.
Olivier Norek is a lieutenant in a Paris-based wing of the French gendarmerie, as well as a writer for the television series Spiral. In The Lost and the Damned he offers a devastating picture of a society rotten with self-interest, corruption and terrible cruelty. The brutalised corpse of a young female heroin addict is shown to an elderly woman and her son for identification. They claim not to recognise her, although the reader is told immediately that they have lied. Their denial triggers a series of actions that result in Capitaine Victor Coste of SDPJ 93 uncovering yet more individual and institutional depravity. Stylishly written, full of the blackest humour and horribly convincing, The Lost and the Damned is also a reminder of the absolutely destructive nature of the drugs trade.
If it is a crime writer’s duty is to hold up dysfunctional societies to scrutiny, John Grisham does a brilliant job in his latest novel. Set in the poor rural town of Clanton, Mississippi, in the 1990s, it features Jake Brigance, who starred in several of Grisham’s earlier novels, from A Time to Kill (1989) to Sycamore Row (2013). This time he is forced by the local judge to take on the defence of a skinny, undeveloped sixteen-year-old who shot and killed his mother’s violent boyfriend. That such a child should possibly face the death penalty is shocking in itself, but the horrors keep on coming. These include the game-playing of lawyers and a judge facing re-election, and the fact that a mother and daughter have to go into hiding to avoid the vast, unpayable medical bills incurred because of damage inflicted on them by the dead man. The virtuous Brigance, who heroically puts himself and his family at serious financial risk to help his indigent clients, is also faced with a pregnant fourteen-year-old rape victim whose mother is determined she should have an abortion. Brigance puts heavy pressure on them to allow the baby to be born and have him or her adopted – and so make an infertile couple happy. The identity of the couple in question makes the situation even worse. This is a pacey story with memorable characters. It is also an effective portrait of a brutal, money-obsessed, sanctimonious and unforgiving society.
This is a novel about the lives some women have to endure if they are to survive in a world organised to suit men. It opens in 1999 with a first-person account of a sex worker having her throat cut by a man who has invited her into his car. Fifteen years later, the mother of another woman who was murdered in the same way is preparing the evening’s food in her Los Angeles fish shack, ready to feed not only her paying customers but also the women who work the streets. Someone hates her and keeps dumping dead hummingbirds around her premises. When she eventually goes to the police with the corpses, she is handed over to a patronised female officer, who has tried to persuade her colleagues that there is a serial killer at work. Only when more sex workers have their throats cut is the cop given any credence. The narrative is made up of an intricate patchwork of stories told from different points of view. It is not hard to guess who the killer is, but that merely adds to the tension as we watch the individual parts of the story being stitched together. This is a stylish and engrossing novel, full of all kinds of pain.