Renée Knight’s first psychological thriller, Disclaimer, was about a woman discovering that her life and darkest secret had been laid bare in a novel written by a stranger. Now, in Knight’s second, she introduces Christine Butcher, the highly paid confidential secretary to Mina Appleton, a ruthless supermarket owner and celebrity television cook. Like so many, Appleton believes that ordinary rules do not apply to her and has persuaded much of the rest of the world to share her belief. When she is accused of perjury and finds herself in court, her faithful and put-upon staff do what they must to save her. But even the most passive worm will turn in the end. Knight’s clever first-person narrative raises the possibility that Christine might be in a mental health facility or a secure unit but keeps us guessing until the last chapter.
When Stieg Larsson died, he left readers around the world eager for more of his Millennium series featuring Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Since then, prize-winning writer David Lagercrantz has taken on the challenge of providing new instalments. He has developed Larsson’s rage at right-wing perfidy and men who hate women, mixing it with his ability to depict physical cruelty and superhuman survival skills to produce fast-paced thrillers. In this one the plot focuses on a Russian fake-news factory, while also picking up the story of Lisbeth and her estranged sister, who hates Lisbeth for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses. Both want the other dead. This is sibling rivalry at its most extreme. With high-tech skulduggery, a fatal ascent of Everest, another surprisingly successful romance for the middle-aged Mikael and a deeper examination of Lisbeth’s travails, The Girl Who Lived Twice is both exciting and disturbing.
Val McDermid’s forensic psychologist Tony Hill is serving a prison sentence for manslaughter and trying to find a way to deal with the fear felt by everyone – including the officers – in jail. His long-standing collaborator Carol Jordan, recently dismissed from the police force in disgrace, is looking for a way to deal with PTSD and her taste for alcohol, as well as her feelings for Tony, which have only brought disappointment. She is approached by a barrister who needs evidence to prove that her client is innocent of murder. Meanwhile Carol’s old team investigates the discovery of forty small female skeletons in the grounds of a disused convent. During the work, fresher, male bodies are found not far away.
One of the difficulties with producing a long series such as this is the need to give new readers sufficient background information each time. McDermid manages this efficiently, providing interesting lessons in forensic science, psychology, policing and prisons as she goes along. The dreadful history of the Roman Catholic Church’s dealings with children in its ‘care’ gets a good airing, and even Brexit features. Each chapter is headed with a quotation from Hill’s guide to understanding crime scenes, criminals and the minds of dangerous narcissists.
If anyone ever thought that the business of espionage could be glamorous or romantic, this is the novel to banish all such fantasies. It shows how grubby, cruel and morally questionable spying will always have to be. Bente Jensen runs the Swedish intelligence operation in Brussels and has the bad luck to be given dangerous documents by a British whistle-blower, who has discovered evidence of a torture operation in Syria. The heads of Jensen’s agency are furious, not wanting their relationship with MI6 to be damaged, while the MI6 officers implicated in the crimes need to get the documents back before Jensen publishes them. At the same time, she has to deal with her sons’ difficulties, her own marriage and the corrosive effects of secrecy on all human relationships. Told from her point of view and from that of the MI6 agent Jonathan Green, this impressive novel shifts between Brussels, London and Syria in a horrifying and moving exploration of different kinds of betrayal.
Set in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, The Secrets We Kept deals with the CIA’s determination to get Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago published in the USSR and the efforts of the Soviet authorities to keep it suppressed. Most of the action in Washington, DC, is described from the point of view of members of the CIA typing pool. In the parts of the novel set in the USSR, the story is related by Olga Ivinskaya, the real woman on whom Pasternak’s heroine, Lara, was based. The Secrets We Kept has no truck with the suggestion that has surfaced in recent years that Ivinskaya might have been working for the KGB throughout her long affair with Pasternak. Here she is a tragic, exploited, heroic victim of Pasternak’s egotism and Soviet tyranny.
This is a panoramic novel about one important skirmish in the battle between the Soviet Union and the free world that defined the second half of the 20th century. Two very different love stories are woven into the action and plenty of impossible moral choices have to be made by its appealing characters.
The central character of She Lies in the Vines is Jack Quick, a television campaigner with a serious eating disorder who decides to investigate a kidnap and murder in Australia. He gets the whole country watching his series about the convenient but unjust conviction and imprisonment of a suspect. Needing to heighten the drama, Jack makes compromises and suppresses a piece of evidence he finds during an unauthorised search of the crime scene, all of which adds to the intense sense of guilt he already feels about a childhood accident that left his elder brother in a persistent vegetative state. The novel offers an ambitious exploration of how people lie in order to deal with their own shame. Jack’s private battles are compelling and there is much to recommend here, but in the end the plot does not entirely convince.
Mark Edwards has sold millions of copies of his domestic suspense novels. On the evidence of Here to Stay, his latest, it is not hard to see why. The preposterous plot grips you like an anaconda and the narrative moves very fast. Geeky loner Elliot, who owns a perfectly restored Victorian house in West Dulwich, has his life saved by a charming stranger called Gemma. Romance blossoms and marriage follows, but their bliss is cut short when Gemma asks Elliot to house her parents and sister for a brief time. Gemma’s sister turns out to be suffering from a mystery virus and stays locked in her room, while her parents behave like the worst kind of parasites. Greedy, lazy, messy, demanding, mendacious and clearly planning to stay forever, they torment Elliot in every possible way. Any reader who has had guests overstaying their welcome or invasive relatives will relate to his feelings. As Elliot tries to find out whether his in-laws are merely ghastly or actively evil, the plot moves towards high drama. I didn’t believe a word of it, but Edwards kept me reading.
With two crime series, Vera and Shetland, successfully televised, Ann Cleeves has now moved the setting for her fiction south to Devon and has created a new detective, DI Matthew Venn. Emotionally bruised as a result of a childhood spent in an evangelical cult, Venn found a new home in the police force. Still cautious, tidy and anxious, he is now happily married to Jonathan, who runs an arts centre that provides day care for disabled adults. Their professional obligations come into conflict when an alcoholic vagrant who sometimes worked at the centre is found dead.
Cleeves writes of the left-behind and the unfortunate with intelligence and compassion. She is also perceptive in her descriptions of the resentments and prejudices of the many different characters who find their way to the arts centre. A millennial artist who teaches there to fund her own painting describes her pupils as ‘a bunch of bored middle-aged and middle-class people, who think they have talent or that they understand art’. A police officer with a chaotic home and social life has to interview a witness who owns an impeccable and expensively furnished flat: ‘The coffee came from a machine that hissed in a genteel, upmarket sort of way. Jen felt an overwhelming desire to scribble on the wall with wax crayon.’ And Venn assesses one of his suspects as a man ‘who’d turned his personal likes and dislikes into a moral code’. Always gentle, Cleeves nevertheless allows some necessary anger into this exploration of the way the world deals with the mentally ill and the disabled, and with those who have the often thankless task of caring for them.