Vera Stanhope is now a popular television character, played by Brenda Blethyn in the successful series Vera. This unusual detective inspector is more uncouth on the page than on screen, using idiosyncratic methods to run her (improbably small) team – clever, ambitious and discontented Holly and kind, perceptive Joe – and feel her way to a solution. Ann Cleeves is particularly good at landscape: the Northumbrian valley where this book is set is vividly described. In the valley there is a cluster of new retirement homes and the original ‘big house’. When its house-sitter is found dead in the grounds and another body turns up in the attic, the apparent harmony of the small community is shattered, as secrets come out and lies are exposed. This book shows a skilful author of detective fiction at her very best.
A widowed reporter leaves his Boston job to take his motherless son home to Promise Falls, but his new job doesn’t materialise, so they are forced to move in with the grandparents. They start to get involved with family problems: a cousin, almost deranged after the loss of her baby, seems to have kidnapped a child and is suspected of murdering the mother; something odd is going on at the hospital where this cousin’s mother is chief administrator. Broken Promises is an enjoyable, easy read with a solution that seemed preposterous to me but which may, in the world of small-town America, be perfectly plausible.
The heroine of Lin Anderson’s crime series is a forensic scientist called Rhona MacLeod and the action usually takes place in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The explosion in popularity of the subgenre known as Tartan Noir has turned both cities into familiar settings for crime fiction. The setup may be predictable but Anderson has injected a new subject into this novel – Wicca, a form of witchcraft that is treated respectfully here as a serious religion that offers solutions to contemporary problems. The first victim in this story is found in a room where several dozen Barbie dolls dangle from the ceiling. She has been hanged with a red plaited silk cord known as a cingulum, a witch’s artefact used in sexual ‘magick’ (as it is spelt throughout). The police investigation continues with the help of an ardent Wiccan and by the end some readers might even be converted. For the more cynical, the subject is a good basis for this excellent crime novel.
The French-speaking Canadian village of Three Pines is so small that it is not marked on many maps. The residents of this off-the-beaten-track paradise make frequent references to its unspoilt beauty and peacefulness. Yet over ten books in Louise Penny’s detective series its body count has exceeded that of television’s murderous Midsomer. Chief Inspector Armand Ganache has never hesitated to investigate his neighbours. Even though he has now theoretically retired, he joins his former colleagues to investigate the murder of a young boy from the village. The story is centred on a secret plan to build the largest missile launcher in the world (a bizarre enterprise that, we are told in an afterword, really took place) and the mystery of the builder’s identity. As usual from Penny, The Nature of the Beast provides an interesting plot and (far more importantly) a chance to catch up with familiar and well-liked characters.
FBI agent Jessica Blackwood comes from a family of magicians. She grew up ‘learning how to do suspicious things while looking innocent … how to create deceptions in front of people prepared not to be fooled’. These skills turn out to be exactly the ones needed to track down a murderer who calls himself the ‘Warlock’ – a highly intelligent criminal who has hacked into the FBI’s website, one of the best-protected computer networks in the world, and conned swathes of the American public into believing that he is bringing dead girls back to life. Luckily, the magician-trained heroine stays a step or two ahead of him in a rather implausible but very readable yarn.
Some detective heroes (such as Holmes or Poirot) take on a life of their own, leaving their original creator behind. I realised that Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is one such character when I was sent a collection of his wit and wisdom, compiled by an admirer. His bons mots range from the commonplace (‘hope for the best, plan for the worst’; ‘never say no to a cup of coffee’) to the more original (‘I’m a man with a rule. People leave me alone, I leave them alone. If they don’t, I don’t’). Reacher is an ex-military policeman. He has no family, no home and no property, and spends his life travelling round the United States by train, getting off, like a knight in shining armour, to right wrongs and save maidens. This time he leaves the train at Mother’s Rest, a mysterious prairie town full of silent, watchful people, gathers up some temporary allies, finds out what’s been going on and puts a stop to it. Even Child can’t make a small town in the middle of nowhere into an exciting setting, but the fights are convincing and the dialogue is as brilliant as always. This is the twentieth Jack Reacher adventure, but probably not the one for newcomers to start with.
When we last saw Detective Inspector Carol Jordan and her ally, the psychologist and profiler Tony Hill, it seemed to be an unhappy farewell. A major case had ended in personal tragedy: Jordan’s family had become the victims of the serial killer she was hunting and the book ended with her resignation from the police. However, this book begins on a more cheerful note with Jordan’s rehabilitation. She is persuaded to return to work, with the promise that her old team will be reassembled as a flying squad of detectives. They are to work only on the most serious and intractable cases. Even before their old colleagues arrive, Jordan and Hill are on the trail of a murderer whose victims at first seemed to have committed suicide. This is a highly enjoyable crime novel, with more about the regular characters’ private lives and feelings and less explicit violence than in Val McDermid’s earlier works. I much prefer this talented author’s more recent, less sadistic books and highly recommend this one. But some readers, I fear, might think that McDermid has gone a bit soft.
It is an open secret that Joseph Clyde is the pseudonym of the politician and former minister George Walden. In his second book the subject is an ex-MI5 hero’s relationship with an ex-colonel from the Russian secret service, now a super-rich expat in London. An exciting story with a fascinating background.
Inspector Montalbano’s latest appearance coincides with his creator’s 90th birthday, which seems almost incredible. The story is as convoluted, the characters as complicated and Sicily as magnetic as in all the previous books. A real treat.