After a hiatus of nearly a decade, the excellent thriller writer Henry Porter is back with Firefly (Quercus, £14.99), in which a 13-year-old boy has escaped from the refugee camps in Greece and is on a dangerous odyssey to Germany and freedom. But he has knowledge that has put him in the firing line of an Isis terrorist cell; they are determined that he must die before he can reveal details of operations in Europe. MI6 operative Luc Sampson is tasked with tracking down the boy (codenamed ‘Firefly’), using his expertise in Arabic to win over his terrified charge and save him from his ruthless pursuers. Firefly sees the welcome return of a writer and journalist who has often decried the surveillance society, which he sees as an unacceptable intrusion into our personal freedom. And it’s perhaps that very concern that drives this galvanic novel: it’s not the all-seeing eyes of the security services that will prevent a large-scale atrocity, but the actions of one good man, Sampson. With its vivid portrait of the flood of refugees moving west from Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey, the book could not be more timely, and Porter’s sympathy for the dispossessed is as cogent here as his skill at sustaining narrative tension.
Political concerns are also at the heart of Darling by Rachel Edwards (4th Estate, £12.99), which focuses on the referendum result and its effect on levels of racism in the UK. Shortly after the ‘leave’ vote, the eponymous narrator gets abused in the street for the colour of her skin. She is defended by another single parent, a white widower called Thomas. The couple develop a relationship and marry, but Thomas’s teenage daughter Lola has no affection for her new black stepmother, and the conflict between the two is to have disastrous consequences: a prologue tells us one of the characters is to die. But which one? The writing here is unvarnished but persuasive, and Edwards’ societal concerns are threaded through her novel without cut-and-dried judgements. Some readers may balk at the way Edwards makes virtually every character irritating – no easy sympathy is invited for Darling herself, with her faux-ingratiating tone of voice, while Lola has all the off-putting characteristics of a resentful teenager. There is clandestine evil at the heart of the book, treated with ambiguity rather than straightforward condemnation.
The response to the three Raj-set novels of Abir Mukherjee has been one of unalloyed praise, not least for the fact that these exuberant narratives are so nuanced in their treatment of that era. Damaged English policeman Sam Wyndham encounters trouble in 1920s India alongside his intuitive Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee, who may seem to be the Watson to Wyndham’s Holmes, but is actually the more perceptive of the two. Smoke and Ashes (Harvill Secker, £12.99) has Wyndham struggling with the opium addiction he is obliged to keep hidden. Less able this time to rely on Banerjee, he becomes involved with two cases of recent death – one of which, in a drugged stupor, he himself staggered across — where the bodies have been mutilated in ritualistic fashion. But rendering the investigation less important are seismic events connected with the struggle for Indian independence. As in previous books, it is the flamboyant evocation of Calcutta in the 1920s that makes this such a mesmerising read.
Charles Cumming’s The Man Between (HarperCollins, £14.99) continues the author’s steady upwards trajectory; he will soon be biting at the heels of such venerable masters as John le Carré and Gerald Seymour. This standalone thriller has naive novelist Kit Carradine drawn into the duplicitous world of espionage. Carradine, seduced by what he sees as the glamour of British intelligence, is more than ready to take on the task of travelling to Morocco to track down Lara Bartok, an enigmatic fugitive who may be linked to global terrorism. She is a key figure in Resurrection, a Baader-Meinhof-like group that kidnaps and murders right-wing politicians and journalists (an early victim here is a female journalist who bears a resemblance to a controversial UK pundit). Inevitably, Carradine is attracted to the seductive Lara and is forced into a fateful decision.
Barbara Nadel’s distinctive Istanbul-set series of Inspector Ikmen thrillers dovetail brightly coloured scene setting with deliciously tortuous plots – the resourceful Ikmen is always struggling with intractable cases. In Incorruptible (Headline, £20.99), the body of a young woman has been found crammed into a dustbin and festooned with cut flowers. Ikmen discovers that she was hailed as ‘the blessed woman’, apparently cured of cancer by a miracle and subsequently declared a messenger of the Virgin Mary. This beatific Christian reputation has not endeared her to the Islamic community, and there were many who wanted her dead. But is there something in her family history that has brought about her murder other than religious intolerance? Nadel has never shied away from provocative issues, and the uncomfortable edge here makes this one of the most forceful entries in the series.
Robert Crais honed his craft on seminal American TV cop shows, notably Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, and like his inspiration Raymond Chandler utilises the delirious panoply of Los Angeles as a backdrop for his writing. His sardonic private eye Elvis Cole is securely fixed in the constellation of literary detectives, as is Crais’s other recurring character, the hard-as-nails Joe Pike. In The Wanted (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), Tyson, a teenage burglar of upmarket homes, is being tracked by two brutal murderers, keen to retrieve a stolen laptop. Cole and Pike are hired by the mother of the missing boy to find him, and soon both duos are converging on Tyson — with violent results. Not vintage Crais, perhaps, but he still expertly delivers his customary modern-day riff on the 1940s hardboiled idiom.
Barry Forshaw’s latest book, Historical Noir, is published by Pocket Essentials/No Exit.