In her novels Chocolate, Blackberry Wine and Five-Quarters of the Orange, JOANNE HARRIS has simultaneously tickled our literary sensibilities and tantalised our taste buds. But she is also a writer with a total command of the psychological thriller idiom, as her new book,Different Class (Doubleday), demonstrates. Set in the same Yorkshire village that featured in earlier Harris novels, the plot focuses on a boy’s grammar school that has been brought to the brink of ruin. It is decided that a crisis intervention is needed, but the trendy new head who is appointed turns out to be an ex-pupil of eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley, and old scandals re-surface in a maelstrom of guilt and betrayal. Different Class, subtle and allusive, is Joanne Harris at the top of her game.
Brooklyn-born, Cornell-educated CHRIS PAVONE made a mark with his debut novel The Expats, a book bristling with superbly plotted, surprise-packed authority. The new book, The Travelers (Faber), is set against the beleaguered industry of print journalism, and it’s a smart, intelligent thriller that combines a sharp evocation of locale with fully rounded, quirky characters. Journalist Will Rhodes is luxuriating in his assignment at an upscale Argentinian resort, sampling everything from the haute cuisine to the polo fields. But a casual sexual flirtation leads him into considerable danger when he becomes a target. For inexplicable reasons, his whole life is being torn apart by mysterious individuals whose purpose is unclear. And to further complicate things, Will has no access to the secrets that may cost him his life. With a globetrotting, cinematic reach (from Capri to Paris, Stockholm and even Iceland), this is picaresque thriller writing at its most involving, with the hapless Will Rhodes a satisfyingly conflicted hero.
Love You Dead (Macmillan) is the latest in the Roy Grace series from the hardworking and prolific PETER JAMES. The plot: Jodie Bentley, as an unprepossessing child, had nurtured two dreams: to achieve great beauty and to marry a rich man. Surgical intervention has helped to achieve the first goal, and she has her sights set on the second. But for her, marrying money is a prelude to disposing of an unfortunate encumbrance: a wealthy husband. Detective Superintendent Grace is having a difficult time, with departmental pressure and developments concerning his missing wife Sandy (the latter mystery has been exercising Peter James enthusiasts for several books), but Grace’s most pressing problem is the Black Widow, at work on the detective’s home patch, Brighton. And he is to appreciate that this woman may be one of the most dangerous opponents he has ever faced. What is perhaps most commendable about James’ sequence (of which this is the 12th) is its sheer consistency. That should come as no surprise, given the writer’s long and productive career in a variety of genres, but is nevertheless a pleasure to know that with each new book the reader is in the safest of hands. That is once again the case with Love You Dead. (I should point out – for full disclosure — that a member of the dramatis personae seems to share my surname…)
From the south coast of England to the North of Italy. The Waters of Eternal Youth (Heinemann) finds DONNA LEON revisiting a lovingly-evoked Venice in the company of her Commissario Brunetti, and, as always, it is a reassuring experience, though suspense generated in the course of the book is andante rather than allegro (a simile to reflect Leon’s great interest in – and great love of – music). In the new novel, Brunetti is looking at a cold case after a request by an imperious Contessa who is a friend of his mother-in-law. The Contessa’s teenage granddaughter was rescued from drowning in the Venetian canal, but suffered brain damage and has no memory of the accident, living trapped in perpetual youth. Brunetti’s reinvestigation uncovers some minatory secrets from the past. If this is a slighter entry in the Brunetti Canon (without the darker undertones of some of the earlier books), it is still – as ever – effortlessly entertaining.
This writer once described an earlier book by ELLY GRIFFITHS as follows: ‘combines sharp characterisation with notably acute scene-setting and the always pleasing mix of the ancient and modern’. That encomium certainly implies applies to the new novel, The Woman in Blue (Quercus), which is one of the most idiosyncratic in the Ruth Galloway sequence. Here, Griffiths employs a testing new approach: paying out less information than usual, slowly allowing a most nourishing whole to become apparent. Ruth’s friend Cathbad is house-sitting in Walsingham, a Norfolk village celebrated as a destination for pilgrimages to the Virgin Mary. When Cathbad has a vision of a young woman dressed in blue, he is convinced that he has seen the mother of Christ, but then the woman’s body is subsequently discovered in a ditch outside the town and DCI Nelson and his team find the dead woman was a recovering addict undergoing treatment at a private hospital. Ruth’s attitude to the supernaturalism of religion could not be more sceptical, but her atheism does not stop her renewing acquaintance with an old university friend who has now become a priest. The latter is in receipt of various hostile letters attacking women priests with references to ‘women in blue’ suggesting the dead woman mentioned earlier. More deaths are – inevitably — in store. This is Griffiths on rare form, playing a longer game than usual, but the extra patience required from the reader is repaid with dividends.
Is there anyone else in the crime genre currently writing anything as entertainingly off-the-wall as CHRISTOPHER FOWLER’s Bryant and May series? (And let’s disabuse readers of the mistaken notion that this is a historical series, as some seem to think.) Fowler eschews all recognisable genres, though the cases for his detective duo have resonances of the darker corners of British Golden Age fiction. And if you aren’t already an aficionado – and have a taste for the outré — I suggest you try Strange Tide (Doubleday) and find out what the fuss is about.
The search for novelty in the crime genre is never-ending, and there is no denying that it becomes harder and harder for the various jostling practitioners to come up with something new. Easy Motion Tourist by LEYE ADENLE (Cassava Republic Press) is undoubtedly something different from usual run, not least in its presentation of a locale that few of us will be familiar with. The book is the launch title from a leading African publisher, Saasva Republic Press, and takes the reader into the unfamiliar streets of Lagos in the company of British journo Guy Collins. After a woman’s mutilated body is found outside a club, Collins is arrested and questioned by the police as a possible suspect. After seeing the deeply unpleasant interior of a Nigerian prison cell, he finds himself taken under the wing of Amaka, a blaxploitation star somewhat in the mould of Pam Grier. This heady mix, with its pungently realised setting, is the work of Leye Adenle, on this evidence, a writer that British readers need to take note of.
To the archives. Top Notch Thrillers continues to put aficionados of neglected British crime novels of an earlier era in its debt with two very collectable novels by the late JAMES MITCHELL, creator of the dour, Deightonesque spy Callan. Smear Job is the fourth featuring Mitchell’s secret agent and takes the protagonist from Sicily to Germany and the US. Bonfire Night is the final Callan novel, and is a real collector’s piece, not least for its rarity. Mitchell (who also wrote as James Munro) may be enjoying something of a revival of late – not before time. And part of the credit for that must go to Ostara Publishing .
A strong recommendation for A Dying Breed (Two Roads) by PETER HANINGTON. The author has had considerable experience working for the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme and of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts. His journalistic background is an obvious plus factor here, but nothing can substitute for sheer narrative command, and that Hanington proves to have in spades. There are many books about journalism in time of war, but this is a notably vivid addition to the canon. BBC journo William Carver is someone given to upsetting his bosses, but is tolerated for the quality of his journalism (anything of Hanington himself in this?). He finds himself in a complicated situation when a bomb kills a local official in Kabul, and is warned off investigating in no uncertain terms, but such injunctions are red rag to a bull where he is concerned. Carver is to discover revelations that stretches from the dangerous regions of Kabul to the corridors of the BBC. A variety of heavyweight broadcasters have lined up to praise this one, and is not hard to see why. There is the authentic vividness reminiscent of the work of such writers as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler – which is to say the book, despite its topicality, is old-fashioned in the very best sense of the word.
After a debut and successor that made instant marks, the compelling third book by SARAH HILARY, Tastes Like Fear (Headline), has all the psychological insight and storytelling skill of the writer’s earlier work. Tastes Like Fear is every bit as assured and involving as its two predecessors, and Hilary is a writer who is clearly here to stay.
JOHN CONNOLLY always delivers. Proof? Try A Time of Torment (Hodder & Stoughton). Admirers of unorthodox crime fiction customarily share one enthusiasm – a liking for the work of the Irish writer. Connolly’s American-set novels featuring private detective Charlie Parker are one of the glories of the current crime scene, and A Time of Torment has Charlie involved with Jerome Burnel, whose attempts to prevent mass killings have led to a frame that lands him in jail. He enlists Charlie’s aid, and the latter finds himself up against the bizarre cult of the Dead King. As ever, the mechanics of the thriller novel are inverted and reinvented in both subtle and radical fashion.
In Murder Ring (No Exit Press) by LEIGH RUSSELL, DI Geraldine Steel is taxed by a murder investigation involving a valuable missing ring, an ex-con, a now very wealthy widow, and a child who may – or may not — be responsible for his actions. As the doughty Steele corrals the seemingly unrelated crimes, she makes a disturbing discovery about her birth mother… Smoothly professional fare from the always-consistent Russell.
Finally, some brief notices for titles appearing in a particularly strong month: Death Zones (Harvill Secker), set in the Nazi era and reminiscent of Kirst’s The Night of the Generals, is by SIMON PASTERNAK, who may be some distance from the most famous author with that surname, but he has produced a strikingly efficient piece of work with a more considered use of language than readers might be accustomed to in the historical crime genre.
There has been something of a word-of-mouth phenomenon concerning Dodgers (No Exit Press) by BILL BEVERLY, and Beverley’s publishers must be pleased – it’s the sort of thing that frequently converts into healthy sales. The writer certainly deserves the acclaim, with his unique narrative voice.
Any recommendation for The Graveyard of the Hesperides (Hodder & Stoughton) by LINDSEY DAVIS is sui generis, as Davis has been producing beautifully turned outings in Roman sleuthing for many years now, with nary a misstep. (But what, incidentally, has happened to her American rival in this territory Steven Saylor, rather quiet of late?)
I last met the writer GRAHAM MASTERSON when he was firmly in the horror genre. Like Peter James, he has made a judicious move into the crime arena and such books as Scarlet Widow (Head of Zeus) justify the change of gear. One wonders if his new fans (like those of Peter James) have any knowledge of the earlier, non-crime work?
Lastly, intriguing and civilised affair from Italy and France respectively: A Fine Line (Bitter Lemon Press) by GIANRICO CAROFIGLIO and Too Close to the Edge (Gallic) by PASCAL GARNIER. Aficionados of both writers will not be surprised to hear that both writers (one of only one whom, Signor Carofiglio, is still with us) are well worth our attention.