There are many things to admire about the writing of Peter May, so it’s somewhat arbitrary to point to just one element – his admirable consistency over many years. That being said, there has been a broadening and enriching of his skills from book to book, a development that continues to this day, as The Man with No Face (riverrun, £20) attests. The Blackhouse, the first entry in the author’s celebrated trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, boasted a powerful sense of locale and ironclad storytelling. The second and third books (The Lewis Man and The Chessmen) enjoyed equally enthusiastic acclaim, and after finishing the Lewis sequence, May vowed not to visit the territory again, but the weighty Entry Island, suggested otherwise. And now we have new vistas from May with The Man with No Face, a particularly noteworthy entry from the author. In 1970s Brussels, with Britain newly engaged in Europe, an important member of the British government is murdered. There is just one witness: an autistic child of notable artistic ability — and she can only identify the assailant by drawing him (something that the killer will be keen to avoid). As this synopsis suggests, Peter May is never content with utilising well-worn notions for his plot engines, and this is another consummate piece of work.
Former human rights lawyer Alice Clark-Platts worked at the UN International Criminal Tribunal and is the author of such incisive novels as Bitter Fruits and The Taken. The new book, The Flower Girls (Raven Books, £12.99), channels elements from such real-life cases as the Jamie Bulger murder (as many others have done), but weaves something new and intriguing. A child goes missing, and a clue to the disappearance may lie in a disturbing crime from two decades previously: the eponymous ‘flower girls’, Laurel and Primrose, were involved in a similar case in which one was convicted of murder while the other was granted a new identity. The repercussions of this earlier judgment are to have fateful repercussions in the present. Clark-Platts maintains a visceral contact with her deeply conflicted characters in an impressive piece of work.
Do his rivals ever quietly resent the veteran Gerald Seymour’s default description as ‘Britain’s best thriller writer’? It’s an encomium he has enjoyed for many years, and one that he shows no sign of relinquishing. His years as a reporter covering dangerous events in Borneo, Vietnam, Israel and Northern Ireland gave Seymour material for his subsequent thriller-writing career, which has proved to be among the most accomplished in the field. The new book, Battle Sight Zero (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99), has undercover officer Andy Knight infiltrating an extremist group whose aim is to bring a much-feared weapon to Britain: the Kalashnikov AK-47 — a development that MI5 had been struggling to resist for decades. Becoming friendly with a young woman involved with a test run to smuggle rifles from Marseille, Knight is well aware that it is not a sensible idea to become emotionally attached to a target – in this case, the beguiling Zeinab — but dangerous consequences follow. As ever, Seymour has forged a scenario quite unlike anything that he (or his contemporaries) have attempted before – his reputation him as Britain’s best thriller writer remains firmly intact.
The lineage of the psychological suspense novel is a long and fecund one, stretching back even beyond the masterly (if baleful) influence of Patricia Highsmith. And the current high standing of the genre is due to such writers as the skilful Fiona Barton, who manages to take overfamiliar scenarios and transmute them into something new and striking — as with The Suspect (Bantam Press, £12.99). Two teenage girls disappear on a gap year trip to Thailand and their families find themselves in a well-publicised nightmare. Ambitious journalist Kate Waters, always hungry to be first with a story, has a personal interest in this situation – she has not seen her own son in several years since he left home to go travelling. And things are to become even more personal (and fraught) for Kate. As in The Widow, Barton has the full measure of the thriller narrative.
Rory Clements’ compellingly readable historical novel The Heretics with its dangerous religious fundamentalists was very pertinent, even with the historical distance added by the fact that the locale was a vividly evoked Tudor England and the target of the relentless Catholic assassins no less than Elizabeth I. The sequence of novels by the award-winning author to feature the highly intuitive ‘intelligencer’ John Shakespeare (the less famous brother of the playwright) all sported a comprehensive narrative grip. With Nemesis (Zaffre, £12.99), Clements has moved to a WWII setting. Professor Tom Wilde, vacationing in France, finds that his gifted student Marcus Marfield (who joined the International Brigades in Spain) has been incarcerated in a concentration camp in the Pyrenees. After managing to ensure that he is released just as the Germans invade Poland, Wilde is subsequently engaged in a tangled international conspiracy, and he begins to question the loyalty of the student he has fought for. Whatever era Clements chooses to set his work in, his skills remain as finely honed as ever.
The notion of what constitutes an accomplished thriller has bifurcated over the years in intriguing new directions, but the best entries finesse established elements, introducing an elasticity into the narratives. In that regard, the much-hyped James Brabazon is undoubtedly one of the most adroit practitioners in the field, as The Break Line (Penguin, £7.99) proves. Max McLean’s work for the British government has always been clandestine, but he has recently been under a cloud where his employers are concerned, and they have decided to give him a final task to prove his worth. He is sent to a military research facility for a meeting with an ex-comrade-in-arms — a man who is now incarcerated for his own protection. Max’s colleague has had a breakdown during an operation in West Africa, and Max himself is soon dispatched on a dangerous mission to Sierra Leone that will test his own will to the limit. The Break Line is an intelligent thriller that delivers a full-throttle exercise in tension.
Few people have carried off the challenge of a variety of careers with quite the aplomb of Lynda La Plante. Actress, writer, producer, businesswoman: La Plante has achieved success in all these fields, but many readers of Murder Mile (Zaffre, £7.99) will feel that her most lasting achievement is as creator of one of the most influential protagonists in crime fiction. There is no more iconic female copper in the genre than La Plante’s Jane Tennison, who has been massively influential not just on British crime shows (clones of the character played by Helen Mirren appear frequently), but also in foreign crime – the producers of the Danish The Killing have frequently said that there would have been no Sarah Lund without her English predecessor. In Murder Mile the year is 1979, and Jane Tennison is now a Detective Sergeant posted to Peckham CID, one of the most demanding areas for policing. The streets are full of rubbish and the body count in the area is rising. There is immense pressure on the police to deliver results, and it is up to Jane to catch an elusive killer. An earlier La Plante book presented (less successfully) a youthful Jane, but this is the bloody-minded Tennison that we know and love, and Murder Mile will be catnip to admirers of Britain’s best-known female detective.
Two new novels feature tough and resourceful heroines with the resilience of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise. Steph Broadribb’s debut novel Deep Down Dead featured tough Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson, and was a prime example of an English writer finding an American voice for both the narrative and the characters. In the event, Broadribb proved to be just as adroit in this area as such male counterparts as Lee Child. That book involved the up-against-it Lori, desperate for money, taking on what proved to be a dangerous job. In Deep Dirty Truth (Orenda, £8.99), she is snatched by Miami gangsters in what appears to be a prelude to murdering her. But instead of her death, they offer her a commission: track down their ‘numbers man’, Carlton North, who is in protective custody after turning federal witness against them. If she fails, she and her family die. This is every bit as lively an outing for Broadribb’s heroine as its predecessor, and the pace is satisfyingly unrelenting.
Also sporting an extremely capable heroine is Winner Kills All by R J Bailey (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), and any resemblance to Modesty Blaise may not be accidental, as ‘R J Bailey’ is an admirer of the late O’Donnell. R J Bailey is actually the husband-and-wife team of Robert and Deb Ryan. Robert Ryan’s métier (when writing solo) was in his powerful wartime novels, noted for audacious plot ideas, but he is equally adept at the contemporary thriller when writing in tandem (as here). In this novel, the indomitable Sam Wylde (star of earlier Bailey titles) has tackled Albanian gangsters while tracking down her ex-husband Matt, who has taken their daughter Jess without her permission. But life becomes very complicated when she encounters playful Serbian killer Bojan, whom Sam believed dead — and who becomes involved in the race to find her daughter. This is very much a ticking-clock scenario, an enterprise at which Bailey/Ryan has few equals.
The Murder Pit by Mick Finlay (HQ, £8.99) is a gripping novel with an adept sense of place as well as a clear-eyed examination of the dark exigencies of human behaviour — and this is certainly a dark novel. The year is 1896, and the premise is that Sherlock Holmes is busily at work in Victorian London – but while he accrues headlines, low-rent private detective William Arrowood is tasked with more gritty cases. His is a much more stygian and violent London than that of the Great Detective, and Arrowood is the perfect guide to this benighted territory.
Word-of-mouth remains an important element in drawing the attention of readers to provocative and accomplished writers, and Lucy Foley has been a deserving recipient of praise in this regard. Her grasp of the demands of a compelling crime narrative are on the nail in The Hunting Party (HarperCollins, £12.99), and if her delineation of the psychology of her characters is writ large (rather than with finesse), that hardly undercuts the sheer readability of the tale she tells. A camaraderie among a group of friends forged at Oxford has survived the years, and a New Year’s celebration at a secluded Scottish hunting lodge is arranged. The initially pleasant gathering leads to more than the consumption of haute cuisine – only eight of the nine friends will return home from the party. There is a serial killer on the loose, but is there a murderer closer to home?
Academic treatises on the crime fiction novel are plentiful (it’s a field that this writer has contributed to on several occasions), but Crime Fiction: A Critical Casebook, edited by Stephen Butler and Agnieska Sienkiewicz-Charlish (Peter Lang, £46), is one of the most comprehensive and insightful entries in some considerable time. The net of the study has been cast wide, and the insights here are many and varied – mostly written in an approachable style which means that non-academic readers should (largely speaking) not be daunted. Particularly rewarding is the essay by the accomplished writer Paul Johnston – no mean practitioner of the detective novel himself — ‘Crime Fiction and Politics: An Autopsy’, which is full of trenchant perceptions for the crime aficionado. Pricey, perhaps, and not for the casual reader, but more serious students will find many rewards here.
Barry Forshaw’s latest book is Historical Noir (No Exit Press)