And don’t miss:
If you have a taste for butchery (literal and metaphorical) and police procedurals, overlook the unappealing title of Abattoir Blues by Peter Robinson (Hodder & Stoughton 384pp £18.99) and try this reliably clever story by a master of the genre.
An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell (Harvill Secker 176pp £9.99) is a novella in which the morose Kurt Wallander, house-hunting at his grown-up daughter’s command, cheers up very briefly when he finds a house he likes. However, only too soon it all goes wrong when he discovers a woman’s skeleton buried in the garden.
Rome’s police commissioner Alec Blume is on leave to recover from wounds sustained in the course of an earlier case, the subject of Conor Fitzgerald’s previous book. Ill and grumpy here in Bitter Remedy (Bloomsbury 320pp £11.99) he stumbles on a case involving murder and people-trafficking, investigates and gets personally involved. This is the fifth episode in an always enjoyable series.
This is the month when the big names are published, so I am beginning with one of the biggest, Ruth Rendell, who is the author of getting on for eighty books, the winner of every crime-writing award there is, a life peer and, in her mid-eighties, still publishing remarkably original crime novels. The Girl Next Door is the story of a group of oldies who first met as children during the Second World War, when they found a network of tunnels that became their private hideout. Jump to the present day, and the discovery of human remains in what had been their secret den. Details are recalled and gradually disclosed, as aged memories resurface and decades-old emotions are revived. In this engaging novel, the portraits of elderly people living today and their preoccupations are presented with almost sociological precision, and scattered throughout are acute observations about changing language and manners.
Although his writing is new to me, this is Neil Gordon’s fourth novel, which apparently tells from a different angle a story told in an earlier book. The narrator, Isabel, is a star journalist for a British broadsheet. She’s also the daughter and granddaughter of well-known left-wing Jewish activists in New York. To avoid arrest after writing a front-page story about the unconstitutional surveillance of US citizens, she goes into hiding in her dead grandparents’ home, where she finds information about her family’s political activities. The book conveys a bold anti-establishment message, describing an America in which ‘the machinery of government, the military, trillions of dollars of the Federal Reserve, the combined powers of the mightiest nation in human history’ are turned against the heirs to ‘a failed tradition of American radicalism’. Isabel tells us far more than anyone could possibly want to know about her own drug addiction, but that misjudgement aside I found the story exciting and interesting.
Val McDermid hit the big time some years ago, but if she hadn’t, this book would have done the trick. Its most interesting characters are successful and self-confident professional women. It is set in Edinburgh, Oxford and Croatia and its subject concerns the atrocities committed in Croatia during the cruel Balkan wars of the 1990s. In earlier novels McDermid has written about individual crimes, contrasting violence and pain with the peaceful, law-abiding lives most British people lead. Here she emphasises the point that a single death is as important as mass murder, as unforgivable in a war zone as the war itself. The book is gripping, thought-provoking and original – a tour de force.
Set during the early period of the French Revolution, this beautifully written drama is a model of historical fiction. There are no set-piece descriptions of the world as it once was, and no awkwardly old-fashioned dialogue, but neither are there anachronistic details and expressions. Instead, information about a past way of life and the period is imparted with such subtlety that it’s hard to identify any didactic passage. The book tells the story of Charles, the son of Edward Savill and his estranged wife. She took their baby to Paris and stayed when revolution broke out, but did not survive. Charles is left with only her parting words: ‘Say nothing. Ever.’ The mute child is brought to England by a group of aristocratic refugees, and the story concerns his father’s efforts to take him home and his temporary guardians’ efforts to keep him. Highly recommended.
Another adventure for the psychologist Alice Quentin, who specialises in dealing with the most dangerous psychopaths ever to be locked up in high-security institutions. In this, her third case, she forces herself to help the police in the search for a series of missing girls, confronting one of the most dangerous child-killers ever convicted. Although Louis Kinsella has been behind bars for many years, it becomes apparent that he is still somehow directing a disciple, as a series of young girls suffer abduction, starvation and murder in what might be copycat crimes. Alice holds her own in confrontations with her terrifying patients, a rival forensic psychologist and jealous colleagues on the investigating team. The Winter Foundlings is an exciting story, very well told by an accomplished novelist and award-winning poet.
Constable Hirschhausen has snitched on corrupt colleagues, and as punishment has been given a lonely posting to a dusty township in a godforsaken part of southern Australia. His new colleagues are no better than the last lot and in his new patch he makes enemies quickly as he alienates powerful men, frightens victimised women and (literally) disarms unsupervised children. He also uncovers a vice ring and unmasks corrupt cops – he is, in fact, a very contemporary version of the knight in shining armour coming to the rescue of virtuous victims. I can’t think why I haven’t read Garry Disher before and why he is not already famous here, since he has written many crime novels and won several prizes. Here is an excellent thriller by a seriously good writer.
Almost all the reappearing characters in Imogen Robertson’s 18th-century series live in disguise. There is an academic anatomist who won’t admit he is an earl, a bookseller who was once a slave, several orphans who are the reluctant heirs to titles and riches, and the unconventional widow, Mrs Westerman. These dual identities can become a little confusing to the reader and certainly confuse the other characters in this novel, who are all immediately or tangentially involved in investigating the murder of a one-time planter from the West Indies. The engine of Theft of Life is the slave trade and the shameful fact that so much of Britain’s wealth depended on it: ‘our institutions, our monuments and our culture are all stained by slavery, and it’s not talked about enough’. This interesting novel talks about it, and taught me, a lot.
‘Someone killed my mother; I ended up in jail.’ Jane Jenkins had looks, money, education and influential connections, but none of these advantages protected her when her mother was murdered. After a hugely publicised trial, Jane was convicted. But now her lawyer has found a technical flaw and she has been released. Disguised and in hiding, she is nonetheless pursued by the media as she makes her way to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere to find traces of her mother and discover who killed her. Elizabeth Little’s first novel is an entertaining, energetic and original mystery.