In The Russian Doll, Marina Palmer, who has written several well-received historical crime novels as Imogen Robertson, pits Ruth, a young woman who grew up in care, against a Russian oligarch and his powerful, manipulative wife, Elena. Ruth and Elena are brought together by a terrorist bombing in a London cafe, where the Russian woman is entertaining her two daughters. Admiring Ruth’s courage at the scene, Elena offers her a job as a personal assistant looking after her social and charitable affairs. As Ruth learns more about her employer’s activities, she has to develop strategies to keep herself safe and to work out which of the many other employees she can trust. Part thriller, part romance, part social commentary, this is a wildly entertaining novel.
Lachlan Kite, who was introduced in Charles Cumming’s Box 88, is also the star of this two-part novel. We meet him in the present day, when his colleagues summon him back to work because the Russians are steadily killing off people they consider treacherous. Present and future targets are named on the so-called Judas List. Most of the names are Russian, but among them is Peter Galvin, which was Kite’s cover name in an exfiltration operation decades ago. The narrative then switches back to his journey to Russia in the guise of an English teacher to remove to safety a scientist who possessed too much dangerous information. The tension of this part of the novel is lessened by the fact that we know Kite survived the operation. But excitement is high in the second part, where he seeks revenge against the worst of his old enemies and tries to guarantee his erasure from the Judas List and the safety of his friends and family. Cumming knows his stuff and has done his research, giving the novel an admirably authoritative air. He is free with his condemnation of Russia’s criminal elite and also of some members of Western governments in their blatant disregard for the truth.
Most of the stories in this collection, Sara Paretsky explains in her introduction, deal with people who kill for love. In the majority of cases, the love is romantic, filial or between siblings, but there is also a touching story of a child’s affection for a laboratory mouse. Paretsky’s own love for Victorian crime fiction informs some of the stories. Her pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle in ‘The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer’ is not only engaging; it also provides an excellent reintroduction to the almost forgotten Anna Katharine Green, an early writer of detective stories with whom Conan Doyle himself corresponded, hoping for a meeting when he travelled to America. Paretsky’s stories were written over the course of a couple of decades and include many of her established characters – among them private investigator V I Warshawski, journalist Murray Ryerson and Warshawski’s ghastly ex-husband. What also comes across is her anger at social inequity, misogyny, government malpractice and people who value money above justice and human rights. This collection offers a feast for anyone who enjoys Paretsky’s writing. It would also serve as a good introduction for those who do not yet know her work.
Simon Beckett’s hero-cum-victim is Jonah, who serves with SCO19, the Met’s specialist firearms unit. Ten years ago, his adorable young son disappeared in the park while Jonah slept on a bench. No body was ever found, but one of the child’s shoes was seen near a culvert into which he might have fallen and been carried away into the miles of underground waterways beneath the capital. Jonah’s marriage collapsed and he fell out with his best friend, Gavin, a detective working in the organised crime unit. Now Gavin gets in touch again and summons Jonah to Slaughter Quay on the south bank of the Thames. Jonah soon finds himself in the midst of dead bodies, suspected of murder, and is determined to find out what is going on. Beckett is an expert in doling out information in the right-sized snippets and at the right intervals to keep the tension high. Jonah comes across as a sympathetic character as he tries to sort out his own life and feelings while solving a terrible mystery.
The sequel to The Lost and the Damned, Turf Wars sees Capitaine Victor Coste and his team from the Police Judiciaire at war with the drugs squad and the local mayor as they investigate murders in the banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis. The drug gangs keep the high-rise housing estates under some kind of control. Young men with no qualifications (some of them illiterate) earn money as dealers, runners and lookouts and obey the orders of their gang bosses. Members of the local government know all about the trade and even use some of the powerful players to promote their own interests. But power in the drugs world can be kept only by the strongest and most ruthless. When someone tougher and crueller appears, he will take over and encourage his lieutenants to terrorise anyone who might protest. Some of the juniors are like child soldiers, so brutalised by what they have experienced that their violence has no limits. Norek served in the Seine-Saint-Denis Police Judiciaire for eighteen years and everything he writes is both credible and enraging. This is a prime example of crime fiction as social history, but it is far more gripping – and moving – than any work of history.
Sofi Oksanen, a prize-winning Finnish–Estonian novelist and playwright, takes us into the misery-driven, money-making world of artificial insemination in this first-person narrative, which is addressed to an absent ‘you’. It opens in 2016 in Helsinki, where the narrator, Olenka, is working as a cleaner and visiting the section of the local park devoted to dogs in order to watch a family with two small children. The story then moves back to Ukraine in 2006 and her family’s impoverished farm, which she escaped at the age of fifteen after she won a modelling competition. It is clear that terrible things have happened in the meantime, but Oksanen takes her time in revealing them. We learn that Olenka earned money donating eggs to a fertility clinic, then joined the management of the clinic and did well enough to be promoted, before an unspecified disaster forced her to flee and change her name. The fractured chronology and withholding of crucial information might have been designed to add complexity to what is fundamentally a simple plot, but its main effect is to make reading the novel unnecessarily laborious.
Creators of long-running police procedural series face a problem when their main character becomes too old to be a credible member of any police force. Michael Connelly, like Ian Rankin, has solved it by having a much younger female detective calling on the assistance of the original series sleuth, in this case Harry Bosch. Renée Ballard is a loner, surfer, dog lover and good detective, having to endure, like so many other women in law enforcement organisations, institutional misogyny and possible corruption among the senior officers. The crimes she has to deal with here are a series of rapes, unusually committed by two men working in concert, and the murder of an ex-gang member who was thought to have bought his way out of an organised crime network many years ago. The rape investigation is the stronger part of the novel, while the sections dealing with the financial shenanigans of the gang are more interesting than engaging. The revelation of the rapists’ motivation is both timely and convincing. Far too sophisticated to provide a Hollywood-style happy ending, Connelly nevertheless offers an unexpected burst of optimism as he closes this instalment of the Ballard and Bosch series.
Julia Dahl was formerly a crime and justice reporter for CBS News. In the Missing Hours, Claudia Castro, a young woman of great wealth with an inflated sense of entitlement, wakes up in her dorm at New York University aware that something has happened to her. Unable to remember any details of the night before, she realises she must have had sex and hopes that the man she was with used a condom. Becoming aware of more and more injuries, she hides away from everyone but a kindly neighbour in her dorm, who brings her food and offers her comfort. Eventually she accepts that she was raped. She is the kind of accuser juries dislike: at the time of the alleged attack she was off her face with drink, and she had previous with the men involved. Dahl then shows us more of Claudia’s past, which alters the picture a bit. It turns out that one of the assailants has made and distributed a grotesque video. As we learn more about his character and ideas, the picture is transformed entirely. While his lawyer father tries to contain the probable damage, Claudia plots her own revenge, creating victims of her own. As W H Auden put it in ‘September 1, 1939’, ‘I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.’ This is a clever novel that should be read by anyone tempted to make snap judgements about people.