Vijay Patel is a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police with girlfriend trouble and an interesting past. Once a famous cricketer, he had to retire after a severe injury to his wrist. He then happened to solve a tricky serial killer case with a mixture of luck and good judgement. Now he has been seconded as an adviser to the Indian police, who are hunting another serial killer. They don’t want him and he doesn’t want to be there. Patel struggles with jet lag, indigestion, food far hotter than that his family eats and the mischief-making of some of his Indian colleagues and various suspects. The clash of cultures and personalities is handled with wit and panache: ‘the “West” he was from, law-abiding England, was just a myth the Indian rich believed in. However, the Indian wealthy were physically trapped in the East, where poverty and lawlessness, unsentimental fatalism and merry-go-round logic made the whole place a beast of eccentricity that toyed with their petty Western aspirations.’ Cold Sun, the first novel in a planned series, is as eye-opening as it is entertaining.
Two sisters, Leila and Yasmin, are close to each other. Leila, the elder, is rich and professionally successful but cannot have children. Yasmin is a secretary. She lacks her sister’s drive and ambition but has a child. As is often the way with sisters, each is envious of the other, but their relationship is complicated by their shared past in care and by the way Leila was forced to take on responsibility for her sister when she was far too young to do so. When Yasmin’s baby is found dead in Leila’s car during a heatwave, they and their husbands are forced to confront all kinds of unbearable truths. Leila’s subsequent trial for murder swings first one way and then the other. The writing is effortful in a way I do not remember from Abdullah’s earlier novels, Take It Back and Truth Be Told. This may well be deliberate, as a reflection of Leila’s character, but it doesn’t always work: ‘She felt a heave of disbelief. It strafed through her senses, like a swill of milk that’s gone to rot – pungent and overpowering.’ A simpler style would have given Next of Kin more emotional impact. The novel deserves it, for this is a clever, heartbreaking story.
This intelligent novel, written by a husband-and-wife team, explores the nightmarish world of the influencer. Deluged with free gifts, holidays and adoration from fans, influencers with millions of followers are never off duty, and their families become little more than vehicles for product placement. The influencer at the centre of People Like Her is Emmy Jackson, married to Dan, who had a first novel published some time ago and has been stuck for years writing his second. They have two children, four-year-old Coco and recently born Bear, both of whom feature in Emmy’s online life. The dishonesty of what she does is continuous. At one moment she entices Coco into trashing a room in their house because a journalist is about to come and interview her and take photographs and Emmy’s online persona is far less competent than her actual self. If you are a ‘mama’ influencer, efficiency and success are as much of a turn-off as a baby who sleeps through the night. You are there to reassure the unhappy and struggling that you are just like them. Dan worries about the implications of what his wife is doing, even as he benefits from the income she makes. When a stalker appears, moral scruples are overtaken by sheer physical terror. The stalker’s plot and Dan’s efforts to stymie it are exciting. Dan’s ultimate reaction is as morally disturbing as the rest of this excellent novel.
Having written some well-received memoirs, the retired Labour cabinet minister Alan Johnson has now produced his first crime novel. His accidental hero is Gary, the only child of a single mother, now sharing a house with friends in south London and working in a dead-end job. He has no girlfriend and fantasises about both his flirtatious and glamorous boss and a young woman he sees doing her make-up on the train to work every day. At the same time, a bunch of Russian organised criminals and members of the FSB are involved in a complicated power play. The characters of Gary and his friends are well realised and their story has charm. The Russian part of the plot is full of nods to reality: ‘“Our President is ruthless,” Smolnikov said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re friend or foe or even family. If he sees you as a threat…”’ The novel has been edited with a lighter touch than was perhaps warranted.
Felix Francis continues the family tradition in this first-person ‘Dick Francis novel’, which is a combination of racing-set revenge thriller and therapy narrative. It opens with Miles Pussett on the Cresta Run in St Moritz, sliding face down at eighty miles per hour with only his body weight and spiked shoes to control his toboggan. The novel then switches between the current winter season in St Moritz and Miles’s traumatic past. Orphaned in his teens, he was obsessed with becoming a jockey and following his late father to the championship. Although Miles’s career started well, he was soon failing. Eventually, nightmares, panic attacks and alcohol caused him to collapse and he had his first stroke of luck: the NHS provided the treatment he urgently needed with the kind of speed that hasn’t been seen for many years. Now, he needs the adrenaline rush provided by the Cresta Run, but even that is at risk when St Moritz fills up with old friends and enemies from his racing days, assembled for the annual race meeting on the ice, and Miles has to find out whether someone is out to get him and, if so, why. He is easy to sympathise with but hard to like.
This entertaining campus novel, set in Washington, DC, is full of commitment-free sex, gargantuan drinking bouts and revolting frat boys who say ‘bros before hos’ and ‘never trust a skank’, but it has the added bonus of featuring a group of students who have been diagnosed as psychopaths. Their fees are being paid for them because they have agreed to participate in a long-term study of the condition. They are all clever, narcissistic, lacking in empathy and manipulative. Some parts of the novel are narrated by Chloe Sevre, who has chosen the university in order to exact revenge on someone who tormented her at high school. Others are narrated in the third person from the points of view of students in the programme and its director. When the bodies of some participants are found, suspicion naturally falls on the surviving psychopaths, several of whom join forces to investigate the rest. Who the killer may be is the least interesting part of the novel, but the interplay between the characters is fascinating and there’s lots of fun, both in the writing itself and in what it describes. The core story of why Chloe wants revenge and whether she will get it adds emotional weight.
S R White, who served in a UK police force for twelve years, brings plenty of personal experience to his convincing, Australian-set police procedural novels. Here, an illicit trapper stumbles on the body of a murdered man whose corpse has been displayed in dramatic style. The investigation is handed to Dana Russo, whose violent childhood helps her to understand many kinds of suffering and offending. With her team, she ploughs doggedly through the evidence, offering psychological insights into not only the victim, who was a convicted rapist just out of prison on parole, but also the two young women who had been supporting him and many other characters. At times the novel moves slowly, but as Dana’s investigation closes in on its target the intensity ramps up. The novel touches on the dire effects of drug dealing for prison inmates and officers alike, on political corruption and, above all, on the myriad ways in which disturbed or malevolent adults can torment their children. A lightly sketched but delightful incipient relationship brings welcome warmth.
Donna Morris is a menopausal detective constable working in Scarborough whose husband has remained in the marital home miles away. She has chosen Scarborough in order to support her adult daughter, who is serving a prison sentence nearby. Donna is not quite what she seems, having grown up in East Germany before the wall came down. One tremendous coincidence links her past to her current work, but that is forgivable in a novel as perceptive and interesting as this one. Well written and without any flashiness, this believable police procedural deals with guilt, vengeance, love, a serial killer with a God complex and redemption. It is quiet, effective and moving.