It was a busy day for me. According to my calendar, I was to meet two very different writers who work in in the general area of the crime/thriller genre: the Cuban Leonardo Padura and Sheffield-born Brit Simon Beckett. Both men are highly stimulating company, but I have to confess that I was a little unsure at first how my meeting with Leonardo might go at his hotel in Bloomsbury. The writer, neatly bearded and casually dressed, initially seemed a little ill at ease, suggesting with a frown that our meeting might have been better with an interpreter present. This proved to be very much not the case, as his command of English vocabulary is better than many an English speaker; when he started using words like ‘ambivalent’. I pointed out that this did not really demonstrate that his English was as poor as he said it was.
Padura is, of course, is as much a literary writer as he is crime novelist, and our discussion raged across his ambitions for the kind of books that he writes, which are as much about his Latin society as they are about the commission and investigation of crime in his own country. In the hour I spent with him, I learnt more about Cuba and its current unsettled state than I had previously gleaned from British newspapers. But we were principally there to talk about his new book. Heretics (Bitter Lemon, £12.99, trans. Anna Kushner) – a novel that eschews straightforward crime scenario in favour of a juggling between the modern day and 17th-century Amsterdam. Bibulous sleuth Mario Conde is now a second-hand book dealer, but becomes entangled in a mystery involving a Rembrandt portrait and a couple who fled from Nazi Germany but were not allowed into Cuba. As much an astringent picture of Padura’s own society as a crime fiction outing.
Later that evening, I was taken for a meal near Victoria station with Simon Beckett by his urbane publisher Simon Taylor and publicist Hannah Bright. It was an equally civilised affair, though very different from the afternoon’s encounter. The wry Beckett’s writing is always solid and consistent (notably so in his new book, The Restless Dead), investing the familiar tropes of the crime thriller genre with new and individual developments. Simon and I last met when he had been up for a CWA Dagger award and I was one of the judges — the amiable author did not resent the fact that I had not pushed through a win for him (he knew I was only of the judges, after all). Post-Padura, this was a companionable evening, and we talked at length about his new book.
If you hanker after strong, pungent writing, then the fierce work of this writer is for you. Such books as Whispers of the Dead have all the adroitly orchestrated tension we now expect from him. Forensic expert David Hunter has escaped the grim residue of his last case and has returned to the research faculty at which he learned his craft: the Body Farm in Tennessee. He accepts an invitation from his ex-mentor to visit a crime scene – a secluded cabin. The horrors that await him there takes him swiftly back into the territory he knows too well: a cat and mouse game with a cunning and monstrous killer. Chemistry of Death and Written in Bone are equally impressive, with Beckett demonstrating a casual mastery. Simon Beckett fans will know what to expect from his work – and though the squeamish would be wise to steer clear (as they should always do with this writer), the rest of us will have a grimly suspenseful and edgy time.
Heretics is published by Bitter Lemon
The Restless Dead is published by Transworld