A seventy-year-old retired doctor who lives alone on a Baltic island wakes up to find his house is on fire. He escapes but his home and all his possessions are gone. Determined to remain on his island, he camps out in a disintegrating caravan and carries on the daily routine of his lonely life, conversing only with shop assistants and, occasionally, other semi-hermits. His daughter turns up and leaves again. Various women come by and leave again too. The arsonist’s identity is not so much discovered as gradually revealed. The huge number of readers who are devoted to the work of the late Henning Mankell will find in this, his last novel, all the characteristics they value: the observant descriptions of the minutiae of daily life, the gentle melancholy, the careful analysis of relationships (especially between fathers and daughters) and, above all, the inevitability of loneliness and loss.
The Good Daughter is a violent, bloody, sickening story by a bestselling author. I can see how good a writer Karin Slaughter is – very good, in fact – but you need a stronger stomach than mine to read every word describing a bloody attack on two young girls who have been forced into the woods at gunpoint. The section of the book that follows this account, set twenty-eight years later, opens on another scene of carnage. The story develops into a vivid portrait of a small town and its community, with all its pretences and prejudices. Although in my view five hundred-plus pages are too many for a crime novel – actually, for most novels – this one is outstandingly well crafted. With its mixture of pace, balance and suspense, it could serve as a model for a masterclass in writing the gory, sadistic thrillers that so many crime-fiction fans enjoy.
In 1956 Anthony Eden’s wife famously remarked that she felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through her drawing room. I often used to feel that muddy trenches were opening up in mine, for my husband was one of the pioneers of what is now called field archaeology. It quickly became a popular subject, being eminently filmable. Francis Pryor is himself a field archaeologist. His account of a televised excavation of a Dark Age cemetery is clearly based on experience and fact; the interpersonal rivalry, the unnatural deaths and the leisurely process of detection, based more on thinking than doing, are perfectly credible. This interesting novel would be even better if shorter, but I did enjoy it, and was impressed by the number of readers who contributed money towards its publication. This is the first crowd-funded crime novel I have come across, but it might well point towards the future of fiction.
E V Harte is the pseudonym of Daisy Waugh, a prolific writer of journalism, fiction (historical and contemporary) and non-fiction. She is also a tarot card reader and a graduate of the College of Psychic Studies, and advertises her psychic services in this book. Its heroine, Ms Dolly Greene, earns a rather meagre living as a professional tarot card reader, and, like the author, lives in west London near the Thames. Let’s hope that the rest of the book is pure fiction, since Ms Greene’s house is tiny, her income puny, her neighbours tricky and her grown-up daughter nice but uncouth. She becomes increasingly involved with her neighbours after the battered and drowned body of a woman, possibly a recent client, Nikki, is washed up by Chiswick Bridge. It all adds up to a story that deserves to be described – unusually, in this genre – as rather sweet.
This is the veteran politician Vince Cable’s first novel, though he has previously published several non-fiction books. Open Arms reads a little like non-fiction, with many pages of explanation, quite a few of description and rather fewer of dialogue or action, though there are many dramatic moments in the complicated story. It concerns a glamorous new female MP who is appointed to government office before she has even learned how to find her way round the House of Commons. She leads a trade delegation to India, where she meets and falls for the head of that country’s leading weapons manufacturer. I can’t think it plausible that they carry on a passionate affair without any thought of gossip columnists. The story shifts between Whitehall and Delhi’s worst slums. The machinations of money men and politicians, the suspicions and prejudices of union leaders and the neediness of families contribute to the complications of getting a trade deal to come good. This is an instructive book by someone experienced in the world he tries to re-create, but as fiction it fails to come to life.
To tell the truth I rather dislike the psychotherapist Frieda Klein, the protagonist of Nicci French’s crime novels. But the fact that I could seriously write that sentence shows how convincing French, a pseudonym for husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, has made this amateur detective. In this, Klein’s seventh appearance, her home has turned into a crime scene and her own friends are being targeted by an unidentified enemy. In the end, of course, she lives to fight another day.
This is an energetic, unusual, hard-hitting thriller, set in Venezuela, which tells the story of an assassin who missed his target. Having failed to kill the president, Sergio tries to escape as the military clampdown becomes ever more severe. The place sounds like hell, as, at present, Venezuela really is: this is documentary masquerading as fiction, and the book caused its author to be exiled from his country. We ought to know about the terror and awfulness that some human beings experience every day; we should read the books dictators ban. But they are likely to be, as this one is, full of horrors. Centeno writes with wry wit and painful candour, using literature as a weapon. Sadly, it can’t fight bullets.
Those who watched the 1990s television series Prime Suspect will remember Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, the brilliant, driven police officer fighting the institutional sexism of her male-dominated profession, quite as much as they do the criminals she investigated. This is Lynda La Plante’s third book about Tennison’s earlier career, showing her fighting her way into and up through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. It is a curiously addictive series.
Margery Allingham’s writing was frequently described as inimitable, which presents a problem to anyone who tries to imitate her. But she was also addictive, so any new use of her characters and settings will give pleasure to her fans. Mike Ripley’s new book probably comes as close as anyone’s to Allingham’s style and viewpoint.