Philip Oakes Crime Round Up Feburary 2004

  • John Le Carré, 
  • Steve Mosby, 
  • Paul Southern, 
  • John Harvey, 
  • Donald Harstad, 
  • Martin Edwards (ed), 
  • Pete Dexter

Absolute Friends

By John Le Carré

Hodder & Stoughton 383pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

JOHN Le Carré's fiction has always been big on betrayal: the treacherous friend, the faithless wife, the country which jettisons its principles. Infidelity - whatever the mode, whatever the scale - is what lights the fuse and here it has inspired the author's grandest rant since his first burst of anti- Americanism nearly thirty years ago in The Honourable Schoolboy. What's done it this time, and no wonder, is the war with Iraque into which Le Carré believes we've been dragged against all sense, reason and integrity. We're there, asserts his crumpled spy-hero ' Ted Mundy, 'on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyper-power that &inks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment'. That's just a small sample and atypically mild. Le Carré despises and condemns the American action and says so caustically and at some length: Fortunately, the harangue is strapped to the back of a poweful plot which follows Mundy (son of a drunken army major in Pakistan), who becomes a spy after a spell in the British Council, and crippled but dynamic Sasha (son of a Nazi-sympathising priest in East Germany) who joins him as a double agent for British intelligence. Everything changes when the Berlin Wall comes down. The Soviet empire lies in ruins, Islamic fundamentalism runs riot and 1 those once absolute friends are , improbably joined in a murderous plot (devised by devious CIA veterans) to stop it, very publicly, in its tracks. What makes Le Carré so angry is the degree of American deceit which he believes has yoked us to the war wagon. You do not have to agree with his argument to admire the book: his passion and his conviction will grab your heart and mind. Polemics rule, but Le Carré finds room too for irony, wit and compassion. The blend works well. Invigorating, I think, is the word.

The Third Person

By Steve Mosby

Orion 320pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

THE setting is Britain in the near future and the time is seriously out of joint. The ? Police force has become privatised. Traditional England is in retreat, displaced by pseudo country and seaside ('designed as a place permeated with nostalgia'), and street-level living has been replaced by high-rise terrazzas and tenements. J son Klein sits at home studying the Internet (which offers rape sites, death sites and murder sites to interested scanners), seeking information that he hopes will lead him to the man he believes killed his lover. In fact, there are killers all around, including a wicked millionaire who numbers among his possessions a collection of framed texts which, when read carefully, bloom in the mind into living compositions, exuding smells, sounds and sensations. Debut novelist Mosby has packed a complex, sometimes bewildering plot the brilliant ideas. His book is fiercely original, truly intriguing. This is speculative fiction at its reckless best.

The Craze

By Paul Southern

Century 281pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

A day and a night in Manchester's Asian underworld where three of its citizens - rebellio S Shazia, at odds with her scheming Pakistani family; Jamie Farrell, teenage gangster yearning to go straight, and handsome, gay Dru Round, in search of showbiz stability - meet up with their painful destinies. Lurid stuff ('The pouting purple of her lips, a trepanner at his groin, mining the seams of his dark desires.. . ') with mu ' h violence in the same key. Lots of energy, though, and an authentic, grimy sense of place. So OTT at times that you ask yourself if it's all for real. Almost certainly the answer's yes. If so, forget the North; stay safe in the soppy old south.

Flesh and Blood

By John Harvey

Heinemann 320pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

TROUBLED haunting novel about memories of crimes past reawakened by crimes present - both instances concern the abduction and/or murder of teenage girls - and the resolve of retired cop D1 Frank Elder to solve the mysteries and ride out the nightmares that torment him. As much a meditation on middle age and Middle England, where most of the action occurs, as it is a study of the crimes themselves, with Harvey fusing time and place, motive and milieu into a backdrop against which lives are lived, spoiled and frequently wasted. It's also about broken dreams and desire (sexual desire for the most part), with Elder - betrayed by his wife, who in turn is betrayed by her new partner - finding solace with the mother of the sixteen-year-old who went missing years before. There are several narrative strands, which join up as the story proceeds. There is no fictional glue: things come together because they fit and because they must. Harvey handles his characters and their circumstances with extraordinary tact, which in no way slackens the tension or slows down the chase (will the missing girl be alive or dead when she's found?). What matters is that you really care. This concern, woven into the texture of the book, is the stamp of a major novel: thrilling, urgent, important. Harvey addicts should watch out for the appearance on page 80 of his most celebrated character, DI Charlie Resnick, still soldiering on and now happily shacked up with DC Lynn Kellogg. No hint of a comeback; they're already doing what they want to. That's what you call a happy ending.

 

A Long December

By Donald Harstad

Fourth Estate 307pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

TERRORISTS on the rampage in the heartland of Nation County, Iowa, with old pro deputy sheriff Car1 Houseman taking the strain. A bloody start to proceedings with the execution of one revolutionary defaulter, found near the pig feeders at Frog Hollow farm with half his head blown away. Investigations lead on briskly to the emergence of a ricin poisoning plot with a barn siege of poisoners-cum- bombers rounding off the action. Tough, no-tears-wasted narrative by ex-cop author who tells it like it is.

Green For Danger

By Martin Edwards (ed)

Do-Not Press 315pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

'IT is my belief, Watson, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dream record of sin than does the smog and beautiful countryside.' Sherlock Holmes advanced the notion. Martin Edwards's intriguing collection of twenty crime stories, all set miles away from the sinful smoke, takes it for a ride. Able and &verse contributions by all hands, especially Angela Badenoch (timid Canadian cousin inherits haunted East Anglian farmhouse); Gwen Moffat (macho bird lover done to death on Hebridean cliff); Brian Innes (seedy Repo man tracks down C & W fraud in darkest Marlow). Heartening how unfettered and original most of the contributions are. An excellent, stimulating anthology.

Train

By Pete Dexter

Heinemann 320pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

PETE Dexter's impeccably-set Fifties novel (his first book in a decade) is about crime, sex and being a control freak in rich, racist Los Angeles. Mostly though, it's about sex, with Dexter's main character, a detective sergeant named Miller Packard, taking all his activities - gambling, golf and his pursuit of the rich widow Norah - to the limit, with no regard for sense, convention, or consequence. He meets Norah when her yacht is hi-jacked, her husband murdered and she is raped and sexually mutilated. Packard contains the crime scene, lulls the lullers and instantly moves in on the victim. Their mutual lust, soon to be licensed by marriage, is slaked wherever and whenever the fancy takes them - at a Harry Belafonté concert, on a visit to a planetarium, in the garden, where the neighbours become outraged spectators. Norah's attackers, it transpires, were on the staff of a plush local golf club, where, in the course of his investigations, Packard meets Train, a young, black caddy whose phenomenal form as a player makes him a star (with Packard as his backer) on a moneyed underground gambling circuit. Pleasure and profits merge and multiply, but for Packard - living perpetually on the edge - the greatest kick is being in control, not only of himself but of others. Ironically, it is an addiction which can only end in painful burnout. When the worst happens it's unexpected, but after the fall-out and after the perspective has settled it also seems to have been inevitable. Dexter's narrative is non-judgemental, ironic and poised evenly on the relationship that joins the three principals. The ties that bind also contribute to the damage. No one takes the blame; no one says sorry. As well as being alert, exciting and eventful, Train is one of the most composed novels in a long and jittery spell for crime fiction. It describes extreme violence with the utmost calm. The sweatiest sex is often unexpectedly comic. It pinpoints scalding racism with minimal effort, e.g a street sign in LA reads 'Inglewood. A proud Caucasian community'. Dexter never raises his voice, but lets the circumstances speak for themselves. It is the kind of eloquence that enriches all fiction, especially here where the focus is up-close, personal and frequently profound

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