The Stoning by Peter Papathanasiou; The Chateau by Catherine Cooper; The Perfect Life by Nuala Ellwood; Cold Justice by Ant Middleton; The Unheard by Nicci French; Blood Ties by Brian McGilloway; April in Spain by John Banville; Bad Apples by Will Dean; Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

October 2021 Crime Round-up

  • Peter Papathanasiou, 
  • Catherine Cooper, 
  • Nuala Ellwood, 
  • Ant Middleton, 
  • Nicci French, 
  • Brian McGilloway, 
  • John Banville, 
  • Will Dean, 
  • Leonora Nattrass

The Stoning

By Peter Papathanasiou

MacLehose 320pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

The subgenre of Outback noir is producing some of the most interesting crime writing of the day. The latest exponent is Peter Papathanasiou, who was born in Greece and adopted by an Australian family. His sleuth is Detective Sergeant George Manolis, who has been sent to the Outback town of Cobb, where he grew up, to bolster the inadequate local team after an appalling murder. A much-loved schoolteacher’s body has been found strung up and battered, with the rocks and stones used to kill her left at her feet. The locals assume the killer or killers must have come from the refugee detention centre that has recently been built in the neighbourhood. Its supporters promised jobs and prosperity for the town, but it has produced only resentment and anxiety about the inhabitants’ practices and effects on the local communities. The local police are hanging on, even though the senior officer is a drunk, his female subordinate is caring for her dementia-suffering mother while dealing all the time with the violent misogyny that is an intrinsic part of Cobb’s culture, and her ‘blackfella’ colleague has dreadful problems too. Manolis’s family history makes him more sympathetic to the refugees than many of the other residents of the town and forms a crucial part of this involving and distressing novel. Papathanasiou gives more detailed information about the various waves of immigration to Australia than necessary because the powerful characters and their stories tell us everything we need to know. I look forward to the sequel.

The Chateau

By Catherine Cooper

HarperCollins 400pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Any couple who move to France without speaking much of the language and buy a ruined chateau without doing any research into French property law deserve more or less whatever happens to them. When they call their infant sons Sorrel and Bay, what little sympathy the reader might have had for them dwindles even further. Peculiar things happen around the chateau, but the first serious setback comes with a murder at a neighbour’s party. Cooper stretches out the tension by withholding the identity of the victim for many chapters, interspersing the narrative with flashbacks about the couple’s life in London. In spite of his irresponsible mistakes, the husband is likeable enough, but the wife – credulous beyond belief and self-absorbed – is more or less unbearable, and it is no surprise to find out how much she is hated by one highly dangerous character.

The Perfect Life

By Nuala Ellwood

Penguin 336pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Distressed women dealing with difficult relationships and lack of self-esteem have become something of a cliché in recent crime fiction. The Perfect Life’s example of this type is Vanessa, whose mother died when she was a child. She has had support from her much older sister, but that hasn’t been enough to make her happy. Falling for Connor promises to put everything right. But nothing can be simple for Vanessa and she hides from her difficulties through a mixture of self-suppression and indulgence in property porn. With plenty of narrative pull, this novel adds to the depressing message that vast numbers of young women still do not have enough confidence to stand up for themselves. It would be interesting to read a mirror image of this novel narrated from the point of view of a highly controlling man.

Cold Justice

By Ant Middleton

Sphere 448pp £20 order from our bookshop

The lone hero who fights off countless enemies in his search for the truth, eventually saves the day and then rides off into the sunset has a long pedigree. But in experienced hands his story can still be told to good effect. Ant Middleton’s version is Mallory, who was fighting with a special forces unit in Afghanistan when one of his men, Donno, was severely injured. Donno, a South African, is now in an induced coma in hospital in England and Mallory, who blames himself for the disaster, visits him once a month. On one visit, Donno’s mother introduces herself and persuades Mallory to go to South Africa in search of her other son, who has disappeared. Then begins a series of adventures and disasters that takes Mallory from South Africa to the United States and back to the UK. The prose is workmanlike, the details convince, the plot works and the pace is satisfactorily fast.

The Unheard

By Nicci French

Simon & Schuster 464pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

The husband-and-wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French tackle the subject of how difficult it is for people with a background of mental illness to be taken seriously. Their first-person narrator is Tess, who has always suffered from anxiety. She is separated from Jason but maintains civilised contact with him in the interests of giving their three-year-old daughter, Poppy, the best possible life. When Poppy starts acting out and presenting her mother with scary drawings, Tess leaps to all kinds of dramatic conclusions and is sure a serious crime has been committed. She is treated with impressive patience by the first detective she approaches but is warned to avoid searching for proof of any of her theories of what Poppy is trying to tell her. Tess is an excellent mother and an appealing character, as is Poppy. If some of Tess’s activities are morally dubious, at least they are impelled by something other than the selfish desire for gratification pursued by more than one of the suspects in this fast-moving domestic thriller.

Blood Ties

By Brian McGilloway

Constable 352pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

Brian McGilloway’s Garda inspector Ben Devlin is a decent man, chasing down villains with practical and emotional intelligence and well aware of the subtleties within the hierarchies of both villains and victims. As coronavirus begins to make itself known in Europe, he brings his ailing father to live with him, his teacher wife and their younger child, while monitoring his daughter’s phone now that she is in her first year of university and possibly at risk. His latest case involves the body of a man found stabbed to death in a flat rented through Airbnb. This leads Devlin back to an old case involving a schoolgirl’s rape and murder and opens up pain of all kinds for her family, for the suspects at the time and for the original investigating officers. Written in elegantly simple prose with an appealing rhythm, this novel is full of compassion and communicates a clear sense that few crimes are without ancestry and even fewer people are as uncomplicated as popular opinion might like them to be.

April in Spain

By John Banville

Faber & Faber 368pp £13.99 order from our bookshop

John Banville’s novels about the curmudgeonly Dublin pathologist Dr Quirke are set in the 1950s and offer a chilling portrait of a society rotten with cruelty, corruption, public censoriousness and private hypocrisy. In this one, Quirke’s wife, a saintly psychiatrist of Austrian descent with too much personal knowledge of what happened in the Second World War, has persuaded him to take a holiday in northern Spain. There he thinks he recognises someone from Ireland who has been declared dead. At the same time, a young professional killer returns to Ireland, where he grew up in a brutally abusive orphanage. The narrative linking these two men is well constructed and full of excellent descriptions, but the book’s most striking features are its characterisations and the psychological acuity of the writing. Banville is particularly good at rendering men who love the women in their lives yet enjoy provoking them and indulging in a variety of resentments. A few of the period details seemed awry to me – Detective Inspector St John Strafford, who is so grand he despises his wife’s ‘middle-class’ taste for plastic flowers and fake log fires, is shown contemplating saying ‘Cheers’ as he raises his glass – but these are small matters.

Bad Apples

By Will Dean

Point Blank 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Tuva Moodyson, Will Dean’s deaf investigative journalist, typically works with the local police when they are summoned to deal with killings in a remote forested area of Sweden. She has more than just hearing loss to deal with but is admirably resilient, full of warmth and humour (as well as having curious gastronomic tastes) and generally manages to identify the murderers who skulk among the strange inhabitants of the region. This time, she has been sent by her editor to the hill town of Visberg. Pan Night, the local period of misrule that precedes Halloween, is coming. On the tricky, fog-impeded drive up to Visberg with her hearing aids in, she hears screams, stops her car and discovers a woman who has just found a headless corpse. This is only the start of Moodyson’s adventures among the rich, the bereaved, the traduced and the plain-weird inhabitants of the town. Her travails may well give sensitive readers nightmares, but that’s a small price to pay for spending time in her exhilarating company.

Black Drop

By Leonora Nattrass

Viper 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Leonora Nattrass has invented a youngish civil servant with poor sight and a laudanum habit to be the first-person narrator of her fictional account of London politics at the end of the 18th century. The French Revolution has been eating its children, the English are at war in Europe and trying to keep the Americans happy, and Laurence Jago has been concealing from his superiors his half-French ancestry and his knowledge of the language, as well as some indiscreet passing of information to a mysterious Frenchwoman. The novel is framed as Jago’s confession: ‘If I am taken tonight – whether by law, murder or the devil himself – these papers must speak for me.’ He is an attractive character and his predicament is involving from the start. This is a strikingly assured and intelligent first novel about power, conspiracy and the lengths to which the influential will go to ensure their survival. Nattrass is confident enough in her knowledge of the period to avoid loading her narrative with explanations.

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