Mick Herron, author of the celebrated Slough House series, has now written an impressive stand-alone novel. The Secret Hours includes both characters and institutions from the series but has a quite different tone. Here the sadness and rage that underpin Jackson Lamb’s jokes and excesses in Slough House are centre stage, as is an examination of the causes and consequences of failure. The novel opens with an account of an attempted kidnapping, which is full of violence and pace, but then switches to the Monochrome inquiry, which has been set up to ‘investigate historical overreaching by the intelligence services’. The name of the inquiry is appropriate as it is a slow process involving irrelevant testimony presented by innumerable witnesses, but through it we learn about the two main players, cautious and unhappy civil servants Griselda Fleet and Malcolm Kyle. Things pick up speed when witness #137 appears to give evidence about what happened in Berlin soon after the wall came down. The revelations that follow are moving, enraging and utterly involving. Herron is a subtle writer who offers a great deal, including psychological insights that stay with you long after the clever plot is complete.
The fifth book in Doug Johnstone’s series about a family of undertakers and private investigators in Edinburgh, The Opposite of Lonely contrasts the indefatigable kindness of 73-year-old Dorothy with the cruelty and greed of various richer characters. The chaotic funeral of a member of a group of travellers provides the opening scene and this is soon followed by the murder of another of the group. As the investigation unfolds, Dorothy’s daughter searches for her missing arsonist sister-in-law and her granddaughter probes the harassment of a retired female astronaut and her wife. Linking all these cases is anger at social injustice. A little more light and shade could have been provided by the inclusion of a rich and virtuous character, but perhaps such a person doesn’t exist in Johnstone’s imagination.
The Confession Room is a website that has been set up for people wanting to admit to anything that makes them uncomfortable. Lots take advantage of it to ease themselves of the memory of minor cruelties and indiscretions, but some post more dramatic admissions, including one of murder. Emilia, whose sister was murdered, haunts the website. Once a police officer and now working as a private detective, Emilia is full of remorse for the way she ignored her sister’s calls on the day of her death. She is determined to find out what went on, in spite of the warnings of her old boyfriend, who is still in the police force. Soon it becomes clear that people with links to the website are being kidnapped and subsequently shot. Emilia continues to investigate, as does the official police team, and drama is heaped on drama. The plot is clever and the novel offers an exploration of the difficulty of achieving justice for the bereaved and aggrieved.
The highly successful Dick Francis recipe requires a young man of greater intelligence than anyone has noticed in him, unimpeachable integrity, huge physical courage, some emotional difficulties and a lightly sketched but charming (and soon adoring) girlfriend. In his son Felix Francis’s latest addition to the family franchise, the young man is Theo Jennings, working as a bloodstock auctioneer in Newmarket, who overhears two recent bidders confiding in each other about their latest scam. He takes his information to the chairman of his company, who doesn’t want to know, and so embarks on his own investigation, assisted by charming Janis from the accounts department. Suspicion, suspense and worse follow, and Theo is well battered by the time he has sorted everything out and regained his good name. No Reserve is longer than the traditional Dick Francis novel and contains more information, but it rattles along.
Holly, like the character played by Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, is the put-upon daughter of a malevolent and overbearing mother, hiding unexpected talents beneath her meek exterior. She is a private investigator in a Midwestern town and has been hired to find a young woman who has disappeared, leaving behind what might or might not be a suicide note. Fortunately for Holly, her mother is an anti-vaxxer in the time of Covid and is soon carried off by the virus. She is only one of several monstrously selfish elderly people created by Stephen King for this novel, all of whom believe that their own needs and feelings trump everyone else’s. They are nicely balanced by a centenarian poet, who pours generosity and respect over a young stranger with a remarkable talent. But among the selfish are a pair of serial killers, whose activities are the stuff of absolute horror, all the more frightful for the matter-of-fact way King describes them. Holly is determined to stop them, at whatever cost to herself.
The latest writer to pick up Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels is Karin Smirnoff, once a journalist and herself the author of bestselling novels. In a story ably translated by Sarah Death, she takes Larsson’s themes and characters and uses them in a satisfying drama set in the far north of Sweden. As in the earlier Millennium novels, there are plenty of violent misogynists and paedophiles, Mikael Blomkvist bemoans his inability to sustain relationships and the brilliant, unsocialised Lisbeth Salander appears too. Smirnoff has allowed Salander greater warmth than Larsson ever did, which makes her both more credible and more appealing. She becomes involved when social services try to persuade her to take on responsibility for her thirteen-year-old niece, whose father died years ago and whose mother has disappeared. Their story is woven into that of Blomkvist’s son-in-law, a town councillor under pressure to enable a powerful criminal gang to build the biggest wind farm in the area, which is needed to satisfy the ever-growing demand for electricity in the new green age. Salander’s niece, Svala, is a great creation, with all her aunt’s brilliance and superhuman courage. Plenty of hot topics provide the background to the plot, from the madness that is cryptocurrency, the underfunding of social services and the unpopularity of immigrants to climate change and local government corruption, but it is the well-told personal stories that drive the novel.
Any woman whose jealous mother punished her for her father’s devotion, anyone who has burned with murderous rage at the sight of deliberate cruelty or has wanted to kill someone who has slighted or humiliated them will enjoy the activities of the narrator of this novel. We meet her first as an emotionally abused child, then as an adult after the death of her dementia-suffering father. Unlike most of us, she doesn’t just think murderous thoughts but neatly kills the people who have upset her. Her voice is intelligent and witty and for most of the novel the tone is light-hearted, allowing the deaths to feel thoroughly satisfying, but every so often real emotion breaks through, making for an uncomfortable mixture.
Ava Glass’s second novel takes her clever, resourceful young spy, Emma Makepeace, into the brutal world of Russian oligarchs. She is installed as a member of the domestic staff on Andrei Volkov’s magnificent yacht, The Eden, to find out whether Volkov was implicated in the murder of one of her colleagues. In an echo of a real case, the body was found crammed into a piece of luggage. Emma’s mission also includes the identification of a possible traitor in her small, highly secret intelligence unit. Although she suspects one after another of her colleagues, the real villain is pretty easy to spot, but that doesn’t spoil the excitement of her quest, with its multiple disguises and hurried escapes, set in the glittering world of the French Riviera.