John Rebus is now truly retired, suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and has sensibly moved into a ground-floor flat in Edinburgh. But he has not left detection behind. While Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox investigate a death with political ramifications in Edinburgh, Rebus is summoned to the north of Scotland to support his daughter, Samantha, who is the prime suspect in the murder of her husband. It looks as though the cases may be linked – many of the players feature in both investigations – but the biggest question of all is whether Rebus will find absolution for all his years of inadequate fathering. There is a sense of warmth and freedom in this novel, as though Rebus’s retirement has liberated his creator as much as himself.
Elly Griffiths exercises her undoubted talent for charm in this modern version of the traditional cosy crime novel. A motley group of friends decide that the death of an elderly woman in a Shoreham care home must be murder and set about working out whodunnit, with the professional assistance of DS Harbinder Kaur and her colleagues in the south and Sergeant Jim Harris and his in Aberdeen. The dead woman was a specialist in fictional murder and gave assistance to several crime novelists, who appear in one guise or another as the story unfolds. The friends are a fellow resident of the care home, Edwin, who is a gay retired broadcaster; Natalka, a Ukrainian carer with a great talent for maths and Bitcoin-dealing; and Benedict, a failed monk who is now making ‘the best coffee in the south’ in a shack on the beach. Their search for the killer involves memories, coincidences, crossword clues and anagrams. The back stories of all the characters add to the charm, and if nothing in the investigation itself seems terribly likely or terribly real, readers who love this kind of playful entertainment won’t care a jot.
Stuart Turton, whose first novel was the well-received The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, has set his second aboard a ship sailing from Batavia to Amsterdam in the 17th century. The brutality of life on board is vividly described, as the sailors vie with the musketeers, the weather tosses the ship hither and yon, a wife-beating husband terrorises everyone except a surrogate nephew, people die in horrible circumstances and the mark of the Devil keeps appearing on sails and woodwork throughout the ship. Imprisoned in a horrible cell beneath the waterline is Sammy Pipps, an investigator who owes a great deal to Sherlock Holmes in character and skills. Helping him is his Watson, a huge strong man with a scar that looks like the Devil’s mark. This is an imaginative tour de force.
Kia Abdullah’s first novel dealt with a white schoolgirl who claimed she had been raped by a group of Asian boys, only to retract her accusation. Her lawyer, Zara Kaleel, was so disturbed by the case that she abandoned her career and took a job supporting victims of sexual assault. In Truth Be Told, she is approached by a seventeen-year-old pupil at an elite boarding school who says he was raped by a fellow pupil. Kamran Hadid is the clever, suave elder son of a successful businessman and the heiress to a steel fortune. He tries to protect his younger brother from their father’s bullying and their mother’s coldness and high standards. The case is clearly described, as are the background issues of male rape, consent and the pains and miseries of youthful masculinity. The trial itself is gripping. Kamran is an attractive character, which intensifies the tragic outcome. The only thing spoiling an excellent and intelligent novel is the copy-editing. One character receives a bouquet of lilies and fantasises about drawing blood with the thorns. A more interesting mistake comes when the defendant’s counsel is introduced: ‘The barrister for the prosecution was Olivia Hallett, an elegant woman with dark hair.’ Perhaps this reflects a common assumption that complainants in rape cases have to prove their innocence of complicity, but it makes the novel seem less realistic.
Of all the lines from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene that Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) uses as epigraphs for the seventy-three chapters in Troubled Blood, the one that most neatly sums up the whole sprawling monster of a novel is ‘Of lovers sad calamities of old,/Full many piteous stories doe remaine’. Private detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are engaged to investigate the forty-year-old murder of Margot Bamborough, a GP in Clerkenwell. The prime suspect has always been a serial killer who is now in Broadmoor, but there is no evidence linking him to the murder. The original senior investigating officer was having a nervous breakdown as he worked on the case and became convinced that the Devil was involved, filling a notebook with astrological ‘evidence’ and drawings, some of which are ‘reproduced’ in the book. The lengthy investigation is the least interesting aspect of the novel and relies not only on a couple of astonishingly lucky breaks but also almost perfect recall from some witnesses. However, the twist works well. Galbraith writes perceptively about relationships, particularly bad ones, letting us further into the interior lives of both Strike and Ellacott. Galbraith can also be extremely funny, as, for example, when describing a grisly dinner at which Strike is drunkenly belligerent towards some students whose self-absorbed wokery is equalled only by their bad manners. At just over 2p per page, this novel represents excellent value for those needing to pass time. In a purely literary sense, it might have been better value if it had been shorter and more intense.
Robert Harris’s great skill is to render complex information into an easily digestible form, marrying it to well-established characters who engage the reader’s sympathy. In V2 he introduces us to Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in the WAAF, who is injured in an early V2 attack on London while having an illicit weekend with her married lover in a block of flats near Gray’s Inn. Soon she finds herself posted to a small unit in recently liberated Belgium that has been set up to calculate the position of the launch pads from information gained by local radar and the precise position of the falling rockets. Her counterpart is Dr Rudi Graf, an engineer on the V2 programme who has been dreaming of and working with rockets since his sixteenth birthday but is viewed with suspicion by the SS. Informative and exciting, this novel is full of grim domestic details about wartime life, with its distrust and fear, cold and dirt, and persistent lack of food.
The first crime novel John Banville has written under his own name begins uneasily, with the investigating officers joking about a body that has been found in the library of a big house in Ireland in 1957. Many other familiar ingredients of classic crime fiction soon appear, such as the blimpish Protestant owner of the house, his neurasthenic second wife, her unhappy teenage stepchildren, strange retainers, a grandiloquent publican and a wild man of the woods. The senior investigating officer is a classic lonely misfit, much more patrician than his colleagues and easy prey to the various flirtatious women in the cast. At first, the writing is surprisingly – perhaps deliberately – uneven, but as the narrative develops, the prose settles down and all-too-real emotion overtakes the intended staginess of the setup. The victim, castrated as well as stabbed to death, is the local Roman Catholic priest and there is never much doubt about the basic reason for his demise, but it is laid bare in a short, powerful section written from his point of view a decade before his murder. Some of the descriptions of the natural world are beautiful (‘Gulls wheeled and swooped out there, vague chevron shapes, like wisps of cloud come loose’) and some less so (‘Strafford idly studied the milling [sheep] … their protuberant and intelligent-seeming shiny black eyes, expressive of stoical resignation tinged with the incurable shame of their plight, avatars of an ancient race’). Ultimately the novel becomes a painful indictment of the twin bastions of brutality in Ireland, the IRA and the Roman Catholic Church.
Denise Mina is never predictable, except in her sympathy for the marginalised and abused. In The Less Dead she introduces us to Margo, a doctor who was adopted as a child and is about to meet a member of her birth family for the first time. Pregnant and separated from her lover, Margo wants to know about her genetic inheritance before her child is born. Her aunt, Nikki, arrives two hours late for the mediated meeting and reveals a whole series of uncomfortable facts about that inheritance. Margo’s mother, Susan, who was murdered soon after her only child’s birth, was a sex worker and a former heroin addict. Several other women were murdered around the same time and Nikki is convinced that they were victims of the same serial killer, who has never been identified. She herself has received a stream of taunting, abusive, anonymous letters, along with scraps of her dead sister’s clothing and a rug found near the body. Soon, Margo starts to receive similar letters. She knows she is being watched and followed. Always compelling and frightening, Mina’s latest novel is full of tough-minded compassion. She is probably the most interesting crime writer at work today.