A very disparate batch of criminous titles this month, but all (to a large degree) worthy of attention. Last Stop Tokyo by James Buckler (Doubleday, £12.99) deserves several paragraphs to itself. A résumé of the plot gives some idea of what the book is about, but not Buckler’s achievement. His protagonist Alex is a Greenian Englishman abroad who attempts to escape from the multiple mistakes in his life by running away to Tokyo. But while the dazzling milieu of this alien city is distracting, Alex is unprepared when he meets the seductive Naoko, and his interactions with the latter are to make his earlier problems seem footling. This is character-driven fare, but with a vivid sense of place that positively leaps off the page.
Sophie Hannah is a writer who clearly likes to set herself challenges – and in Did You See Melody? (Hodder, £12.99) she has moved decisively away from English settings, locating her novel in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Hannah’s adroit evocation of this US location is considerably more than superficial scene setting (although she accomplishes that task pretty damn well) and renders the dark psychological elements of the piece with her usual acumen. Cara Burrows has temporarily abandoned husband and children for an expensive American holiday at a five-star spa resort. She arrives to find her hotel room occupied by a man and a young girl, but the young girl is someone she can’t really have seen – celebrated murder victim Melody Chapa, whose parents have been jailed for her murder. What follows is Hannah at something like full throttle; the writing is literate and weaves together a variety of intriguing elements.
My Kiwi colleague Craig Sisterson has long extolled the virtues of Paul Cleave, and perfect justification for his enthusiasm may be found in A Killer Harvest (Atria, £20), which once again proves that Cleave is both a major talent and one of the most underappreciated writers in the genre. His protagonist, Joshua, has persuaded himself that his family is cursed – not least in the loss of his detective father while engaged in a homicide investigation. Joshua is granted a bizarre opportunity: an operation that will afford him the use of his father’s eyes. But the things he is to see will destabilise his entire world. With its surrealistic central concept, this is utterly different from any other crime fiction that you are likely to read this year, and is delivered with the kind of panache that we have come to expect from Cleave.
Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Sphere, £19.99) presents a droll and unusual use of the thriller format, one that bristles with intelligence (a rarer virtue in the crime genre than one might think). On a cold November morning, an enigmatic figure is seen on the village green in Three Pines – a visitation that creates disturbing ripples. Chief Superintendenet Armand Gamache finds a corpse in the wake of the mysterious figure, and his own subsequent actions are to have fateful consequences for the policeman himself. Gamache is one of the most idiosyncratic protagonists in the genre at present, and Penny’s storytelling skills are sui generis.
Jason Webster’s Max Cámara novels have accrued a faithful following, and Fatal Sunset (Vintage, £16.99), while not perhaps Webster at his considerable best, will still greatly please his admirers. We’re back in the sultriness of Valencia with Webster’s quirky copper (not averse to partaking of the odd illegal substance) dealing as ever with corruption and double dealing. Events move in an increasingly dangerous trajectory when the owner of a notorious nightclub dies, apparently the victim of his hedonistic lifestyle. Drug dealers, men of the cloth and compromised officials also feature in Webster’s jostling tale.
Out of Shot by AC Koning (Arbuthnot, £9.90) is historical crime writing of some accomplishment. Set in Berlin in 1933 (with Hitler in place as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer), blind war veteran Frederick Rowlands is out of his depth in a difficult investigation, one that takes him into the world of the German film industry. This is splendid stuff, and I’ve included the writer in my next book Historical Noir.
Ausma Zehanat Khan is something of a find, as The Unquiet Dead (No Exit Press, £7.99) demonstrates comprehensively. The author, a human rights lawyer with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes, has the measure of the thriller genre. Christopher Drayton’s body is discovered at the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs, and detectives Khattak and Getty are to discover the victim’s role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. This is a very difficult investigation in a community in the shadow of war atrocities, handled by Khan with aplomb. An impressive debut.
Looking ahead to October: the simultaneous appearance of two titles in like vein throws up some interesting thoughts. When books that inhabit a similar universe appear in tandem, should the avid reader make comparisons (to the detriment of one writer) or treat them as separate entities? In the case of Quarry’s Climax by Max Allan Collins and Turn on the Heat by Erle Stanley Gardner, we are obliged to make comparisons as both books are published by Titan’s Hard Case Crime imprint (both £7.99). One writer is still alive – the prolific Collins — while Gardner is an iconic name from the past. Both authors here, the living and the dead, have a solid grasp of the hard-boiled crime idiom, and Titan avoids the mistake of giving the books politically correct jackets – both feature voluptuous, barely dressed seductresses holding guns a signifier for those who like their crime unnuanced and allegro in tempo. And that’s what they will get here. Comparisons? Well, the late Gardner uses the well-worn genre in an unselfconscious way, while Collins’ book is a recreation of (or homage to) a lost era.