Minoru Aose had a tough start in life. The son of a dam builder in Japan, he moved with his family all over the country from project to project, never really fitting in at school or feeling at home anywhere. Then, while he was still young, his father died in an accident, leaving the family in poverty. In spite of all his problems, Aose qualified as an architect and did well during the years of Japan’s prosperity, only to have to move jobs after the bubble burst and see his marriage disintegrate. After that he had one piece of great good luck: an invitation to build his ideal house for a client with plenty of money and no preconceptions of any kind. The resulting masterpiece gained Aose a great reputation, but now he finds that the client never actually moved into the house, which remains empty but for one chair. Turning detective, Aose slowly fills in many gaps in his knowledge of himself and his past, as well as of the mysterious patron. This is a fascinating novel about guilt, shame and redemption, which offers insights into the subtleties and frustrations of creativity, as well as many different kinds of relationship.
Journalist Louise Tickle has created a tense thriller from one of the hardest legal problems we face: how do you decide whose story to believe when couples fall out and make accusations of abuse? Her lead character, Cherry Magraw, is also a journalist, covering stories about brutalised children from all over the world. Cherry’s own terrible past includes the death of her mother and toddler brother at the hands of her father when she was nine years old. Still in prison, he contacts her, begging her to visit him so that he can answer any questions she may have about the night she fled his violence. She is now a functional adult but is understandably traumatised and both yearns for and mistrusts him. In her professional life she becomes involved in the case of Kathie and Ed, who have separated and are fighting over the custody of their two small children amid accusations of brutality and coercive control. Cherry gets the judge’s permission to attend court in order to write an article. The experience brings her far closer to both the combatants than she would have liked and shows her exactly why the courts so often fail victims. As she already knew, an unappealing personality does not necessarily preclude innocence, any more than charm and rationality imply it, but finding proof is hard – and dangerous. This is an effectively written, intelligent and important first novel, which also offers heart-pounding suspense.
The latest in Val McDermid’s series about DCI Karen Pirie is set in Edinburgh during lockdown. Pirie, still in charge of the Historical Crimes Unit, is in a bubble with Sergeant Daisy Mortimer, while her boyfriend, Hamish, is at his croft, making hand-sanitiser instead of gin. Their new investigation deals with the possible murder of a young woman who disappeared but whose body has never been found. Clues that she has been killed are found by an archivist in the papers of Jake Stein, a recently deceased crime writer. Once the author of bestsellers but unhappily divorced and eclipsed by a younger man with whom he played ferocious games of chess, Stein resented his loss of sales and status. An unpublished manuscript found in his papers tells the story of an alter ego who plans the perfect murder of a young woman with a similar name to the real one, laying clues that will put the blame for her death on his hated rival. Pirie and her team set about examining the evidence. At the same time, she is involved in the illegal rescue of a Syrian refugee at serious risk. She is an appealing character, particularly in this subplot and in the support she gives to her junior, Jason Murray, when his mother succumbs to Covid. The sections of the story involving Stein allow McDermid to have fun describing the inner workings of the crime-fiction profession, including the creation of stories and the politics, favouritism, resentment, jealousy and score-settling found behind the scenes. Various real writers are name-checked and the two imaginary chess-playing novelists are masterpieces of nastiness.
This is a bracing antidote to the many stories of beautiful, sun-soaked French towns, glorious markets, delicious patisseries and long lunches. The Loire Valley in Ian Moore’s novel is a place of rivalry, boredom, dreadful poverty, disappointment, deep resentment of the English and murder. The novel opens with the thoughts of a dying man mistaken for a scarecrow by two passing young women. The investigation into his death is handed to juge d’instruction Matthieu Lombard, who is half-English and living under a professional cloud, detested by some of his colleagues and in turmoil after the recent death of his wife. His misery is compounded by his discovery of evidence that she had been having an affair. He is a great character, curmudgeonly but clever, dogged but sensitive, and with a brain packed with the kind of general knowledge that wins quizzes. The first death is soon followed by others and the plot seems immensely complicated, but Lombard is more than equal to it.
Lachlan (‘Lockie’) Kite is now running BOX 88, the Anglo-American spy operation that featured in two earlier novels. At the start of this one an old schoolfriend, Eric Appiah, sends a covert message to him through his picture dealer to warn him of trouble in the offing. Now married with a baby daughter and staying with his wife in Sweden, Lockie has to explain to her who Eric Appiah is and how they were brought together during an abortive earlier operation. Lockie was part of a team sent to Senegal in 1995 to watch a prime mover in the Rwandan genocide, with the aim of capturing him and putting him on trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The account of the disastrous failure of the operation and the long-term consequences covers not only the assistance given by the French to fleeing génocidaires, but also the welcome by the British of dirty money and their inability – or reluctance – to prevent its being laundered. Educational and infuriating, this is a compelling depiction of the various layers of infamy involved in an appalling blot on the history of humanity.
Set in the late 18th century, Scarlet Town brings Leonora Nattrass’s apprentice journalist Laurence Jago back from America to Helston in Cornwall, where he grew up. The town is riven with rage and rivalry as a campaign to elect a new MP gets underway. Very few people have the right to vote and those few are pursued, persuaded and bribed by the rich and powerful to support their chosen candidate. Arson, murder and poisonings soon follow and Jago is required to investigate by his old patron the Duke of Leeds. His own cousin, Dr Pythagoras Jago, falls under suspicion, adding an extra twist to the many emotional difficulties our hero has to manage. Nattrass is so at home with the history, customs and language of her chosen period that she brings a relaxed credibility to this tale of public and private malfeasance.
Claudia Hartman is out of prison on licence after being sentenced for killing her baby, whose body was never found. At first, Claudia claimed that an unknown woman she assumed was the babysitter she had engaged through an agency took the child and disappeared. The only way she could gain parole, however, was to admit to the crime, and so this is what she has done. Emerging from prison, she is determined to find out what really happened, even though her licence terms forbid her from approaching her ex-husband or his new wife. She moves into an annexe of her mother and stepfather’s house while they are away on holiday and is subjected to harassment and worse from angry neighbours. Her investigation uncovers unexpected aspects of her past, before ultimately revealing what happened. Some of the activities of the characters would seem unlikely in real life, but they all work in terms of the story, which effectively tugs at the reader’s sympathies.
Chris Hadfield uses his experiences as a test pilot, fighter pilot and astronaut to great effect in this thrilling story about a defecting Russian pilot at the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Full of convincing details of the American, Russian and Israeli intelligence services, with a convoluted yet convincing plot, the novel moves at great speed. It also contains mesmerising descriptions of flying under supreme pressure.