Jessica Mann

October 2011 Crime Round-up

  • Jo Nesbo (Translated by Don Bartlett), 
  • J D Robb, 
  • Jacqueline Winspear, 
  • Felix Francis, 
  • Susan Hill, 
  • Héctor Tobar, 
  • Deon Meyer, 
  • Peter Robinson

Headhunters

By Jo Nesbo (Translated by Don Bartlett)

Harvill Secker 272pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

The recent massacre of schoolchildren and students in Norway will change crime fiction forever, according to Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo. I have to say that if he no longer writes books like this one, it will be all to the good. It is the story of a man called Roger Brown, a self-made millionaire with a beautiful wife, a magnificent house, and the perfect job. Brown is a headhunter who finds the ideal candidates for senior posts; but he is also an experienced art thief. The first half of the book is full of interesting information about his two professions, while in the second, Brown turns both hunter and fugitive, and the story follows his unlikely and unconvincing journey around the frozen countryside. I find it almost incredible that this story was nominated for the Norwegian Bestsellers’ Prize for best novel of the year in 2008.

New York to Dallas

By J D Robb

Piatkus Books 480pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

The romantic novelist Nora Roberts, who writes thrillers in the name J D Robb, is quite inhumanly prolific; in some years she publishes more than ten books. And they aren’t even undemanding pap for the undiscerning masses. This series, featuring a homicide detective called Eve Dallas, is well plotted and well written. It is set in the near future, when prisoners can be sent off to distant planets, surveillance methods are even more intrusive than they are today, and most senior cops are female. However, crime is eternal and horrific paedophiles did, do and will always exist. Robb avoids excessive detail about their actions, describing instead the effect on the victims. Dallas, who was once such a victim herself, is tireless and undaunted in her pursuit of the abductor, an escaped prisoner. This book deserves its inevitable place on the bestseller lists.

The Mapping of Love and Death

By Jacqueline Winspear

Allison & Busby 352pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

Maisie Dobbs has survived for fourteen years since the First World War ended. But memories of carnage still loom over everything; for Maisie, who was a nurse, they are memories of field hospitals and hideously wounded men. When the remains of an American cartographer are found in a former battlefield, his rich parents commission Maisie to trace the writer of the love letters found with him. The hunt is interrupted by Maisie’s private life, so the book is as much a family romance or social history as it is a crime novel. The combination makes an excellent read.

Gamble

By Felix Francis

Michael Joseph 432pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

I knew Dick Francis as a friend and admired him as a writer, always fascinated by the way his simply told and formulaic stories could maintain their grip on readers. As I once said in another review, if I knew how it was done I would be doing it. Dick’s wife Mary was indispensable to the creation of his fiction though, after she died, his son Felix became his collaborator. Dick himself died in February 2010, and Felix has decided to continue producing the annual Francis under his name alone. He provides a typical Francis hero: a man with tragedy in his background, self-effacing, brave and self-reliant. The book has a classic Francis setting on various racecourses and in the City of London and there are typical Francis cops, robbers and killers. In fact it has everything that a Dick Francis novel ever had, except the original’s indefinable and apparently inimitable Dick-and-Mary magic touch.

The Betrayal of Trust

By Susan Hill

Chatto & Windus 368pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

When the bodies of two teenage girls are uncovered by roadworks, Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler investigates. There follows the unravelling of an acceptable mystery plot but Susan Hill is interested in much more than murder. She evidently has an affection for her characters and feels strongly about this novel’s theme, which is old age and its infirmities, and what to do when they become incurable or unbearable. A care home? A one-way ticket to Zurich? A lonely overdose? An even more difficult question to answer is: who will help or hinder the old person in doing it? Set against the background of Serrailler’s hometown, this book is both an excellent next instalment and an absorbing novel.

The Barbarian Nurseries

By Héctor Tobar

Sceptre 432pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Here is a fascinating oddity: the story of a rich family in LA and their Mexican maid. When both parents flounce out after a quarrel, each assuming the other would child-mind, their two sons are left alone with Araceli. She takes the boys with her to find someone to look after them. When the parents return, they report the boys missing – presumed kidnapped by the maid who is inevitably caught and tried. The book is beautifully written, if rather too leisurely, but it provides a fascinating portrait of mutual misunderstanding, of the life led by California’s unprotected underclass, and of the American citizens who are wholly dependant on the illegal immigrants who service them.

Trackers

By Deon Meyer

Hodder & Stoughton 496pp £19.99 hbk/£12.99 pbk order from our bookshop

Trackers is a very long, complicated, well-written thriller translated from Afrikaans. The parallel plot-lines take in a wide variety of crimes: terrorism, smuggling, poaching, spying and everyday murder. The story moves from urban Cape Town to the wildest parts of Zimbabwe. The colourful characters include a private detective (formerly an honest cop) who finds the private sector disconcertingly different from the police force; a risk-averse bodyguard commissioned to accompany a pair of smuggled white rhinos on a 1,000-mile journey; and a newly separated wife who proves unexpectedly resourceful when she finds herself involved with a counter-terrorist operation in advance of the FIFA World Cup in Cape Town in 2010. These apparently unrelated characters are persuasively brought together in an unusually intriguing story about modern South Africa.

Before the Poison

By Peter Robinson

Hodder & Stoughton 448pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Best known for his series of police-procedural novels featuring Inspector Banks, Peter Robinson’s occasional stand-alone novels allow more leisurely investigations, more lyrical descriptions of landscape and a brief respite from official procedures. This one is set in the Yorkshire Dales, to which the narrator, Chris, a middle-aged widower, has returned after a successful career composing film music. Chris has bought (sight unseen) an isolated mansion, fully furnished in old-fashioned style. Soon he discovers that this was the homely setting for the notorious murder of an elderly doctor by his wife, who was tried, convicted and hanged in 1953. As he learns more about the story, Chris becomes increasingly obsessed by it, and increasingly dubious about the official version. The book is full of useful titbits about local history, medicine and nursing techniques in wartime, and the manners and morals of the mid-twentieth century – it all adds up to a good read.

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