The Swallows is a timely novel about the toxic, over-sexualised culture of an elite co-educational boarding school in the USA. Alexandra Witt, who has left a different school under a cloud, has just arrived as the new creative writing tutor. She discovers that the boys at the school take part in a generations-old competition that involves manipulating girls into giving them oral sex, which they then rate in the most offensive terms. The story is told by four different narrators and deals not only with the horrible competition but also with various school mysteries. Eventually, some of the stronger girls rebel. The question then becomes who is going to emerge triumphant and at what cost.
Neve Connolly, known in her circle as the kind, sensible friend to whom anyone in trouble goes, arrives at her secret lover’s pied à terre in Covent Garden to find him dead. She decides not to call the police because she wants to protect her marriage and her reputation. Having scoured the flat to remove all evidence of her presence, she goes quietly home. This novel could well be a 19th-century morality tale designed to show the disasters that spread from any kind of dishonesty. Suspicion falls on everyone Neve loves, including her difficult, semi-anorexic adolescent daughter and, once the body has been discovered, Neve herself. The police come back and back to question her, both officially and unofficially. The investigation teaches Neve and her friends a lot more about each other, and about her dead lover’s wife, than they knew. The picture Nicci French gives of a modern north London marriage is absolutely convincing; Neve’s reckless messing about with the crime scene and subsequent machinations are less so, but overall French has produced a tense narrative and an interesting exploration of the bad things good people can do.
Ava, a cookery writer with a terrible secret, arrives at a beautiful old house on the Maine coast to research traditional New England dishes for her latest book. The previous tenant abandoned her lease early but left expensive possessions behind, which seems odd. Ava is drinking to excess and soon sees – and feels – the ghost of Captain Brodie, who built the house and died when his ship went down in the mid-19th century. A woman’s body is found floating in the sea. Locals talk of other women, all of whom looked like Ava, dying in strange circumstances in and around the house.
Whether or not the ghost exists or is a product of Ava’s alcohol-soaked mind, dangerous people soon appear, and the threats they pose are definitely real. The Shape of the Night is an intriguing mixture of BDSM fantasy and a fairly traditional story of an unhappy woman finding herself torn between two men, one of whom seems safe and normal, while the other does not.
Owen Matthews, who is half Russian and half English, is a serious journalist and author of prize-winning non-fiction books. In Black Sun, his impressive first novel, Major Alexander Vasin of the KGB is sent to a secret city to investigate the apparent suicide of a promising young nuclear scientist with powerful relatives. Vasin is an intriguing character, a man who wants to live by and for truth, which is a pretty high ambition in the USSR in the 1960s, when this novel is set. He has a normally disappointing marriage, a beloved son and a dangerous mistress. The secret city he discovers and the facts he learns there about nuclear bombs and the Soviets’ ambition to build one bigger than anything the Americans can produce are all based on fact.
The murder investigation is clever, the science is neatly explained in comprehensible asides and the descriptions of almost universal suffering among the population of the USSR are revealing. Matthews writes of the Russian landscape vividly and with affection, and he lightens the dreadful story with entertaining scene settings: ‘dust dancing in a beam of morning sunlight that pierced the blinds. Particles rising and falling in space, in eternal random motion. God’s feeble way of entertaining bored physics students.’
Leona Deakin worked as a police psychologist in West Yorkshire and has put her experience to good use in this exploration of psychopathy. Someone is recruiting psychopaths for an unspecified purpose, using the information individuals freely give when responding to trivial online questionnaires to single them out. When they have been identified, they are invited to participate in a daring game. News of this reaches psychologist Augusta Bloom when a woman disappears, leaving her invitation behind. Bloom and her colleague Marcus Jameson, who once worked for MI6, pool their expertise as they try to work out what is going on and why. What is happening becomes clear enough, and the immediate reason for the game is eventually explained, but the motive for the recruitment drive remains hazier. This is an interesting novel, pleasantly different from most crime fiction that deals with psychopathy.
Lee Child is the absolute master of the story of a lone stranger arriving in town to save the innocent, and this is one of the best of his series. Jack Reacher is on a Greyhound bus when he sees a lowlife thug preparing to rob an elderly man. Things quickly escalate, sucking Reacher into the orbit of competing organised-crime gangs. Loner though he is, he puts together a collection of appealing allies, including a beautiful waitress. As always, the violence is ferocious and fast-moving. Anyone feeling hard done by or facing insuperable odds will be comforted by this novel, which is also the best advertisement for the NHS (with all its flaws and frustrations) I have ever seen.
Impossible Causes opens with an epigraph from Julio Caro Baroja, a 20th-century Spanish anthropologist who grew up in an isolated community where people believed in witchcraft. The story is set on Lark, a small island cut off from the mainland for six months every year. The novel begins on Friday 13 April 2018, with a young girl reporting the discovery of a body, and ranges backwards and forwards in time, laying bare a misogynistic society governed by religion and mistrust of incomers. The history and customs of the place are revealed in chapters narrated by a schoolteacher, Miss Cedars. Her language is often archaic and her ideas are heavy with folklore, the teachings of the Bible and an ignorance that seems excessive on an island where the inhabitants do, after all, have access to the internet.
Dense and claustrophobic, this well-written but depressing novel reprises the old themes of men whose need to control women is so frenzied that they cannot see any female as an independent human being, and of women who are brought up only to comply and placate, forcing them to devise bizarre strategies to manipulate their way towards any kind of autonomy. The final scene is chilling.
Nothing has gone right for newly widowed Laura, who is facing financial ruin as a result of her insurance company refusing to pay out on her husband’s life insurance policy until after the inquest into his death, which is being unreasonably delayed. She is responsible for her teenage daughter and has no family support of her own. A peculiar community living on a dilapidated farm offers help and sanctuary, and mother and daughter move in. Sinister events follow and relations between members of the community become dangerously inflamed. Laura’s predicament is involving and her struggles to make sense of everything that’s going on around her while still protecting her daughter and their interests are credible. The tying-up of all the threads is perhaps a little too neat to convince, but this is an undemanding and enjoyable exploration of the forces that can drive anyone to violence. The novel could have been improved by a copy editor correcting sentences such as ‘Confused, her gaze flickered between Tilly and I.’
Set on a vast, isolated Scottish estate, The Hunting Party deals with a group of old friends from the south who have rented the place for New Year. Their lives have moved in different directions since their university days and they all face stresses of one kind or another. When the staff find a body on the estate, the guests are told the police will try to reach them but only when the snow stops, since until then no helicopter can fly. The story of the resulting investigation is well structured, with ample clues and red herrings to pull the reader along.