This is the eighth in Susan Hill’s deservedly popular series set in a cathedral city called Lafferton. The stories centre round Simon Serrailler (by now a detective chief superintendent) and his extended family and their network of friends. This instalment is characteristically eventful: Simon goes undercover to identify members of a murderous paedophile ring; his sister (a doctor) copes with widowhood, motherhood and a shaky job; his live-in girlfriend finds a new career; and his father is accused of rape. It all amounts to a gripping thriller, and one that is unusually well written. But there is a downside to the fact that, at least to the series’ regular readers, Hill’s characters have become very real. Almost all of them seem to have lives blighted by tragedy, which means that our admiration and pleasure are inevitably tempered by gloom.
Technically this novel is in the category of police procedural. Grace is a police officer, demoted in rank and banished from her former workplace. Her new life in Colchester and new job as a detective sergeant begin dramatically. One female student has vanished, another has been murdered. Grace does what her job requires. We see her finding her way round an unfamiliar town and learning to accept the train wreck that her previous life has become: her (soon to be ex-) husband turned out to be a vicious bully, while her once-admired superintendent is in fact a disloyal, out-for-number-one con man. The overlap between work and personal life is convincingly described and Grace is an attractive heroine, her vulnerability and professionalism equally credible. In her post-feminist world, equal rights are taken for granted, and so are unequal aptitudes. Most men are stronger than most women; even a police officer can be viciously beaten up by her husband. But Grace is observant and intuitive, and works out answers before her male colleagues. This is an absorbing, well-written whodunnit set in a corner of the world as it actually is in the year 2014.
A gripping novel from South Africa, covering parallel threads of a police investigation into several murders and involving an ingenious professional pickpocket. He has acquired a vital memory card, urgently sought by an international gang of ruthless criminals and the authorities. Its intended recipient, a brilliant scientist whose discoveries could change the world, has disappeared. And the body count keeps going up. The police may be rough and ready, cynical and weary, but Benny Griessel and his colleagues dread returning to a time when everybody was spying on everyone else and everything was hushed up by the media as the all-powerful state security interfered and eavesdropped. So when a higher authority tries to stop the police investigation, one police officer rebels. ‘We are destroying our democracy, and I will not stand by and let it happen.’ And she doesn’t. The book is a vivid portrait of a country in flux and a genuinely thrilling thriller.
I picked this book up to ‘taste’ it, and several hours later closed the last page realising that I hadn’t intended to spend the morning reading fiction. But the prose and plot, the characters and crimes, and the themes of love and loyalty combine into an infinitely seductive tale of contemporary life in small-town America, where citizens bear arms and use them and everyone gets a say and a vote on everything. These are bad times: 9/11, two bloody wars, the great recession, the mortgage meltdown, the real estate collapse and the bailouts of the big boys have broken the hearts of the citizens of Fallbrook, ‘the avocado capital of the world’. It’s a proud boast, one that is nullified by wild fires. The crop has been destroyed. The story is told through a family of avocado farmers: father, stoically trying to save at least a few trees, a shambling disappointment of an older son and a younger son who is a war hero, just back from Afghanistan and constantly being thanked for his service by civil citizens. Full Measure is beautifully written, cleverly plotted and warmly recommended.
With ‘continuations’ of James Bond, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion novels having been recently commissioned by their authors’ heirs, how could Hercule Poirot not be far behind? The Agatha Christie estate (in effect, her grandson) chose Sophie Hannah, a bestselling crime writer, to revive the detective whose creator had so carefully killed him off before she died. Hannah has set the book in 1929, relatively early in Poirot’s career, and knitted together a suitably complicated plot based on the discovery of three murders in an expensive London hotel. She is very good on the atmosphere of the time and the period detail, and her recreation of Poirot is spot on. But the book drags. It is twice the length of an original Christie and, like so much contemporary crime fiction, would be better shorter. Never mind; many Christie fans, eager for Poirot’s revival, will be thrilled.
Regular readers will be accustomed to my complaints that many contemporary crime novels are too long. So it’s a relief to turn to Schenkel’s book (written in German and impeccably translated), which, at about a quarter of the length of several of this autumn’s new books, has all the other attributes of the best crime novels in the subgenre that could be called ‘historical realism’. This one is set just after the Second World War and tells the story of a young woman, sacked for becoming pregnant and forced to return to her parents in their small cottage on the outskirts of a rural village. She has put them to shame, so when someone murders her and her child, her father is suspected, arrested, tried and found guilty while the actual killers go free. Years later – too late, in fact – the truth of the matter is revealed. Rural Germany in the late 1940s was primitive, prejudiced and poor, so this is not a cheery book. But it is a very good one.
In the 1980s, a quartet of novels featuring a bisexual ex-cop called Duffy achieved considerable success. The books were brutal, knowing and explicit. They gave the impression of a self-consciously daring author being as naughty and unrefined as he knew how. It was not long before it was public knowledge that the pseudonym masked Julian Barnes, already famous for his sensitive, intellectual novels full of references to high culture. Unlike, for example, John Banville, author of prize-winning literary fiction, who candidly admits that he writes crime fiction as Benjamin Black, Barnes has always been cagey about the Duffy books, which are never listed with other previous publications or in his biographical entries. Now, still unacknowledged, they are reappearing. Fiddle City (a nickname for Heathrow Airport) is the second and the third, Putting the Boot In, appears in December. My reaction to them has not changed in the quarter-century since first reading. They are rough, tough, ultra-masculine and rather revolting. No wonder so many (other) people loved them.
This is another episode in the long-running Harpur and Iles series, characteristically witty and wry. The books are firmly set in South Wales in the present day, in a city the police keep safe by (sometimes) unsafe means. As usual, realism is tempered by a kind of zany inventiveness that makes these books highly original and enjoyable.
Winter Siege is the completion by her daughter of a historical thriller Ariana Franklin left unfinished on her death. Set in the cruel winter of the war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda, this is a good story, and you can’t see the join.