When the UK’s Twin Queens of Crime, PD James and Ruth Rendell, shuffled off this mortal coil, there was really only one contender for their crown: the Scottish writer Val McDermid. Her narrative skills since her unofficial coronation have not diminished, as proven by Broken Ground (Little, Brown, £18.99). Since ending her Northumbrian sojourn and re-settling in Scotland, McDermid has swapped the North of England setting of her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books for Edinburgh (despite the latter city being heavily populated with literary coppers these days), and we are once again in the eventful company of her new series character, Karen Pirie of Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit. Alice Sommerville, attempting to recover her inheritance (which turns out to be a pair of vintage motorcycles buried after the Second World War in a peat bog by her grandfather) comes across a bullet-ridden corpse and something else not dating from World War Two: a pair of Nike trainers. It’s a classic Karen Pirie cold case set-up. A fifth of the way into the book, McDermid switches the narrative to 1944 with events which will have grim ramifications many decades later for the investigation. Pirie, bruised by office politics, is less interested in the ‘down escalator that is Police Scotland promotion’ than cracking her case. She is a satisfyingly wry and hard-edged protagonist, with the accumulating suspense maintained by McDermid’s spare, dry tone of voice.
Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (No Exit Press, £8.99) is a doppelgänger novel haunted by ghosts. Not so much Edgar Allan Poe (who created the most memorable malign double in ‘William Wilson’), but Guy de Maupassant, Redhill’s literary hero (this book is the first in a projected trilogy called ‘Modern Ghosts’, after the Maupassant story). The same unsentimental view of human nature – and the sense that chaos is just a worrying step away — informs Bellevue Square. The novel is narrated by Jean Mason, who runs a bookshop in Toronto, and at first we warm to her witty, self-deprecating voice, even though we may be wary of the novel’s first sentence: ‘My doppelgänger problems began one afternoon in early April.’ Jean learns from a client that she has been spotted in a different place with a slightly altered appearance, and cracks swiftly begin to appear, both in the structure of the narrative and in Jean’s increasingly fractured psyche. By the time she is accused of murdering a woman friend, she is already scanning the faces of those around her in search of her terrifying human shadow. Is she losing her mind? Certainly, those around her seem to be — the surface of reality becomes increasingly viscous as the book moves towards its phantasmagorical climax.
One of the key pleasures provided by the best thriller writing is the slaking of the travel instinct. But in A Summer of Murder (MacLehose Press, £16.99, trans. Jamie Bulloch), the second of the ‘Black Forest Investigations’ by the German writer Oliver Bottini, we are not only transported to the beautiful south-west Kirchzarten region, we are granted plotting bristling with invention and originality. A burning shed draws the attention of the fire brigade, and a volunteer dies as a hidden weapons cache detonates. Some of the evidence suggests an involvement of German neo-Nazis or arms traders from the former Yugoslavia, but Louise Bonì, who is struggling to readjust to police duties with the Freiburg Kripo after treatment for alcoholism, finds her investigation becoming ever more intractable with the arrival of the Secret Service. And by the time she makes a final pulse-racing trip into danger in the depths of the Black Forest, Louise (and the reader) has been party to some difficult truths about her own addictive personality.
Manda Scott’s formidable Boudica quartet — not to mention her literary excursions to ancient Rome — have hardly prepared the reader for the abrupt change of gear that is A Treachery of Spies (Bantam Press, £16.99). The new novel begins in the present-day with a murder whose tendrils stretch back to World War Two. An elderly woman is savagely killed in Orléans, France, her throat cut and her tongue removed — a death in the manner of those who betrayed the Resistance. Dogged inspector of police Inès Picaut must investigate the actions of the Maquis in the 1940s, fighting a bloody hidden battle against the German occupiers. The dead woman, it transpires, was trained in Britain and parachuted into France. Scott adroitly balances the present-day murder investigation with the bravery and betrayal of the French Resistance. Moral questions are cogently addressed here (such as what happens when the virus of fascism infects the body politic) and Scott’s writing is as commanding as in her novels set in ancient times.
A young girl is locked in a sensory deprivation tank, forced to listen to a repeated message: ‘My name is Sara Eden.’ It is the only thing she knows about herself. Anthony Mosawi’s harrowing Trust No One (Michael Joseph, £7.99) may lazily use a hackneyed title (there are at least seven books currently in print so designated), but there is nothing second-hand about the film industry-trained writer’s debut novel. Years pass, and Sara — now an adult — has begun to piece together things about her enigmatic past. She knows that she was subjected to her ordeal by sinister, clandestine figures who are now trying to track her down. As we (along with Sarah) learn about secret government manoeuvres involving the use of her particular abilities, we are barely given pause for breath in a hurtling narrative that is squarely aimed at the blockbuster market. The furious action wisely allows the reader no time to consider the implausibility of the scenario – even though Mosawi’s book is based on a real-life figure: Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium who came to the attention of Winston Churchill during the Second World War.
Karin Slaughter’s standalones have maintained a uniformly bravura standard over the years. In Pieces of Her (HarperCollins, £20), shifting between two time zones – the present and the 1980s – the American writer make some cogent comparisons between attitudes over the years. An example is this observation from decades ago: ‘Men never have to be uncomfortable around women. Women have to be uncomfortable around men all the time’ — an aperçu that has undergone a seismic shift in the #MeToo era. Speech therapist Andrea Oliver, intimidated by her high-achieving parents, is celebrating her birthday with her mother Laura in a mall café when a shooter who opens fire is dispatched by the cool, implacable Laura. The devastating action is to change Andrea’s image of her mother, whose new celebrity allows her hidden past to erupt violently into the present. To call this high-intensity thriller writing is to understate the case: Slaughter never forgets an oft-neglected tenet of the genre — keep the characterisation of your imperilled protagonists always to the fore.
Barry Forshaw’s latest book, Historical Noir, is published by Pocket Essentials/No Exit.