Steve Cavanagh’s maverick lawyer, Eddie Flynn, is called back into court for the jury’s verdict in a murder case after only forty-eight minutes. As he tells us at the start of this first-person narrative, ‘one thing you can’t do in forty-eight minutes is come to a fair and balanced verdict in the most complex murder trial in the history of New York City’. The novel then flashes back three months to recordings of two phone calls to the emergency services by a pair of sisters, each of whom reports the fatal stabbing of their father and accuses the other of wielding the knife. Cavanagh can generate tension better than almost anyone else and, as he switches the point of view between Eddie, his agreeable opposing counsel and one of the sisters (whose identity is not revealed), he keeps us guessing not only about which sister is guilty and how the trial will end but also about the private lives of the two lawyers.
The husband-and-wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who write under the name Nicci French, have taken the ingredients of the classic English village mystery and transformed them into something up to date and gripping. Tabitha is an aggressive, unhappy young woman who has moved back to the village she hated as a child only to be charged with murder and sent to prison on remand. She has suffered depression for years and can remember almost nothing of the day her alleged victim was killed. Aware that the barrister appointed to represent her thinks she’s guilty, along with everyone else, Tab decides to conduct her own defence. Even the judge tells her she’s making the worst possible decision, as she knows nothing about the way trials are conducted. Now that the criminal justice system is shamefully underfunded, this is a timely as well as an entertaining novel.
The owner of a small shop between the Australian towns of Earlville and Carlton is convinced someone is stealing from him, so he sometimes spends the night on guard in the shop. On one of those nights an intruder climbs in through an unlocked window and the shop owner is stabbed to death. All the obvious suspect says to the arresting officers is ‘sorry’. A police colleague is recalled from leave to interview him, soon realising that she will have to build a rapport with this obviously damaged man if she is to get anywhere. This interesting if slow-moving novel is more concerned with unpicking the characters’ psychological defences than with who killed the shop owner. It is rooted in the damage that family members can do to each other.
This novel deals with the aftermath of a young woman’s murder during a lavish party on a small Irish island. The obvious suspects are the host, whose family bought the island some years before the party, and his wife, who was born in poverty there. There wasn’t enough evidence to charge anyone at the time of the murder. Now, years later, a pair of Australian filmmakers are working on a documentary about the case and asking questions. The answers are full of uncomfortable truths. We are invited to accept, among other things, that not all victims are either likeable or admirable, and that a man may not be all bad even if he weighs his wife twice a week and adjusts the quantity of food he serves her according to what he sees on the scales. The narrative also makes clear that relationships can become toxic as soon as one party feels entitled, by reason of gender, class, wealth, physical strength or even the degree of suffering they have experienced, to abuse the other.
Val McDermid has written the first lockdown crime novel. The effects of coronavirus are mentioned here but do not intrude too much into this tale of murder, deception and the internal battles of Police Scotland. Karen Pirie is still heading the cold-case department and is sent back to work on an old investigation into the disappearance of a politician after his brother is found dead. McDermid is frank about her main character’s more rebarbative traits, but makes her sympathetic enough for the reader to care about both her survival and her success in navigating her way towards the solution. As always, McDermid is well up to speed on developments in the scientific analysis of evidence, which adds an appealing air of authenticity to the novel.
Set in the baking heat of a Chicago summer in 1950, this novel features Rosalind, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb during the Second World War. A cruelly terminated love affair with one of her colleagues, a nervous breakdown and guilt over the deaths at Hiroshima led her to abandon her career for a job selling antique jewellery in Marshall Fields department store. Her erstwhile lover reappears and someone from the FBI comes in search of information about him. Rosalind is presented with more ethical decisions in a few weeks than most people face in a lifetime. Whatever she decides, people are going to be hurt. This involving novel deals with the dilemma faced by so many women of the time, who had been liberated by the war and valued for their brains and competence only to be thrown back, once it was over, into stifling domesticity and the assumption that their greatest calling was to support a husband and children.
Sadie has left her husband in America and brought Robin, their daughter, back to London after her mother’s death. Her mother left Sadie her house, on the condition that she sends Robin to the snooty, high-achieving school she herself attended. Miraculously, a rare place in the right year is found and clever Robin undergoes a nightmare of bullying and social exclusion. At the same time, Sadie has to deal with the other mothers, who are rich, ferociously ambitious and quite as unfriendly as their daughters. Neither Sadie nor Robin gives up without a fight, and their resistance triggers a terrible confrontation. As an examination of social mores in the richer areas of north London, this is an effective and entertaining novel. But it is also an alarming study of emotional violence and the perennial conflict between daughters and their mothers.
Thomas Hawkins, the suffering but charming hero of Antonia Hodgson’s prize-winning debut, The Devil in the Marshalsea, has more trials to undergo in the latest instalment of his life story. Founded on serious research and primary sources, this clever novel gives a brilliant picture of both London and Antigua in the early 18th century, when slavery provided huge profits for many Englishmen. As the narrative opens, Tom is living with Kitty, who is the owner of a pornographic bookshop and also sells contraceptives, cures for sexually transmitted diseases and dildoes. Much is made of the hypocrisy of the apparently virtuous men who publicly criticise Kitty’s business and yet privately patronise it. There is humour as well as impressive research and convincing horror here.
The fashion for serial-killer thrillers dwindled when the excessively graphic violence they contain began to seem more like pantomime than a reflection of reality. Now D A Mishani, author of the Inspector Avraham Avraham series, has taken some ingredients of the subgenre and used them in a literary thriller of quiet intensity. Here there are no gruesome descriptions of sadistic violence; instead he offers simply written accounts of the difficult lives of three women, all of whom are in need of solace or answers. They put themselves at risk as they struggle with circumstance and unhappiness. Watching the steps they take towards disaster is far more involving than any of the less subtle versions of this kind of story.
This is the sequel to Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl, in which an emaciated child is discovered in a secret compartment behind a wardrobe only metres away from the body of a man who has been tortured to death. The child, now known as Evie Cormac, is seventeen and living in secure accommodation. She is still angry and unpredictable, and psychologist Cyrus Haven is still trying to find out who she really is, what happened to her and who was responsible. Both are attractive characters and their struggles against cruelty and unthinking incompetence are engrossing. This is another impressive and compelling novel.