With so many indifferent crime novels being published at present, we can be grateful for those authors who remind us what the genre is capable of. If THE TRESPASSER by Tana French (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) is not quite the Irish author at her considerable best, it’s a reminder that French possesses one thing many writers would kill for – impeccable word of mouth among readers and critics. There are few aficionados of crime fiction who do not speak approvingly of her work. Her The Likeness started with a conversation in a pub, involving the notion that everyone has a double, somewhere in the world. All of French’s novels sport such unusual concepts. In the new one, The Trespasser, detective Antoinette Conway is finding the Dublin Murder Squad deeply unrewarding, with frustrating dead-end cases alternating with time-wasting pranks. But then she finds herself investigating a murder case: a pretty blonde dead in a living room which has been set for a romantic dinner. And while it’s a case that finally engages her, bizarre levels of harassment are coming her way. It’s a tense study in paranoia, delivered with French’s customary adroitness. It’s not hard to see why such writers as Stephen King and Gillian Flynn are admirers.
One of the most heartening trends in the crime/thriller field in recent years has been the revival of the serious espionage novel. Admittedly, many of the new entries have not reached the Olympian heights of the genre’s great predecessors, but AN HONORABLE MAN by Paul Vidich (No Exit Press, £14.99), arriving with encomiums from Joseph Kanon (‘Cold War spy fiction in the grand tradition’), bids fair to enter that august company. The book is relatively slim – at 256 pages — and hardly conforms to the current orthodoxy of weighty tomes, but one has to remember just how compact was le Carré’s magnificent The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Set in 1950s Washington with the Cold War and McCarthyism gripping the country, Vidich’s narrative has the CIA discover that a double agent is selling secrets to the Russians – and, what’s more, the Soviet Union is undergoing a power vacuum after the death of Stalin. As protagonist George Mueller attempts to track down the mole, he discovers that his own secrets are distinctly problematical when it comes to doing the job he has been tasked with. This is splendid stuff, with a complexity and reach that belies the book’s trim size. Vidich is clearly a name to watch.
Let’s face it, there aren’t too many literary policewomen into S&M. In HIDE AND SEEK (Michael Joseph, £12.99), the latest outing for M. J. Arlidge’s highly unusual copper Helen Grace, Helen finds herself framed for murder and her time in a tough women’s prison is (unsurprisingly) to become a nightmare. With an orchestration of tension that is always fluid and cinematic, Arlidge’s writing grabs the reader by the throat — as does his single-minded, unconventional heroine, with her unorthodox sexual tastes. Arlidge’s experience in TV helps him incorporate a notably filmic ethos into his books.
CLOSED CASKET (HarperCollins, £18.99) is a reminder that it took a certain chutzpah for Sophie Hannah to take on the mantle of the Queen of Golden Age Crime, but her initial dusting off of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot met with some acclaim, and this second outing offers many of the same recreated pleasures. Just so long as Hannah does not neglect her own more ambitious and psychologically penetrating books, more satisfying than her pastiches. Perhaps she’ll tire of Poirot in precisely the way Christie did…
Catriona McPherson’s CHILD GARDEN (Constable, £8.99) turns out to be an atmospheric thriller with an intriguing premise. The book takes its inspiration from the ancient Scottish farmhouse in which the author lived before emigrating to California four years ago. McPherson dealt with her homesickness by bringing the house she loved to life again in The Child Garden, and the novel also has an acute portrayal of grief and death amidst the thriller mechanics.
In the eternal search for something new in the crime genre, varieties from other countries other than the Nordic countries are undergoing forensic examination. One result of this serendipity? THE BORROWED by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang (Head of Zeus, £18.99). The success of the book suggests that Hong Kong may be fertile territory. The author was born and still lives there, and this is an innovative novel with a complex structure involving six interlocking murder cases (set over five decades) in the Hong Kong police force. It has to be admitted that Ho-Kei’s novel takes quite some time to exert a grip, but those who’ve stuck with it will find that when it does, it does so comprehensively. The translation is an accomplished and idiomatic one.
In A GREAT RECKONING by the reliable Louise Penny (Sphere, £19.99), Chief Inspector of Police Gamache has a problem. He has been the scourge of murderers throughout his career, but in his new position with the Sûreté Academy, his task is to root out corruption in the force (rather in the fashion of Ian Rankin’s Malcolm Fox). But then a former colleague and professor at the Academy is killed, with a map in his possession that points to a particularly baffling case for the tenacious Gamache. Louise Penny has long been turning out some of the most skilfully written crime fiction in the genre (bagging a slew of awards in the process), and her abilities are once again in evidence in A Great Reckoning.
THE ICE BENEATH HER by Camilla Grebe (Zaffre, £12.99, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel) is a salutary reminder that the talented Grebe deserves the kind of breakthrough some of her less accomplished peers have already enjoyed. Her protagonist here, Emma, is subtly realised, as is the latter’s relationship with an older man — who disappears. While the novel may be marketed as Scandinavian crime fiction, the level of psychological veracity is sui generis. Top translator Don Bartlett told me (for Nordic Noir) that he’d noticed that the Scandinavians talk about the ‘femi-krimi’ novels with a female protagonist: Sara Blædel, Gretelise Holm and so on. The sisters Camille Grebe and Åsa Traff gleaned very positive reviews for Some Kind of Peace, which appeared in translation in the UK in 2012. In an ideal world, Grebe’s solo outing should do just as well.
In THE SILENCE BETWEEN BREATHS by Cath Staincliffe (Constable £19.99), the 10.35 train from Manchester Piccadilly to London is to provide an eventful – and fateful — journey for all of those on board. The skill with which Staincliffe orchestrates her nostalgic scenario (in which the various passengers are strikingly characterised) is strongly reminiscent of the portmanteau ‘train journey’ films of decades ago, but this tip of the hat proves to be very welcome. The fact that the hard-working Staincliffe is among the most productive of crime novelists (in a variety of endeavours) does not alter the fact that she is one of the most imaginative and consistent writers in the field.
Ed Chatterton’s Down Among the Dead Men took the reader to a dark suburban Liverpool, in the company of newly promoted DCI Frank Keane of the Merseyside Major Incident Team. The impact of that novel is replicated in a new outing for Keane, REMISSION (Caffeine Nights £8.99) with the detective returning from the US with $25 million of dirty money. More picaresque than the earlier entry (Keane ends up in Berlin), the exploration of his protagonist’s queasy moral standards is explored in a blockbuster novel of over 400 pages which even merits a dramatis personae.
UNDERTOW by Elizabeth Heathcote (Quercus, £12.99) is firmly in the burgeoning field of psychological thrillers. This latest entry in the ‘marriage as dangerous sham’ stakes may not be massively original, but it’s dispatched with some aplomb by Heathcote.
How good is THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger, Orenda Books, £8.99)? In the increasingly overcrowded Nordic Noir stakes, something unusual is required for a new entry to rise above the familiar – and that is precisely what new name Ravatn provides with this intelligent and allusive piece. Allis Hagtorn is a television presenter who abandons both career and partner to immerse herself in the solitude of a house in an isolated fjord. Her new employer is not the elderly man she was anticipating, but a man in his forties awaiting the return of his wife. What transpires between the duo is both surprising and deeply unsettling. The book is a lean 185 pages but doesn’t waste a word in its steady accruing of psychological intensity.
THE DAMNED by Andrew Pyper (Orion, £8.99) is something out of the ordinary. Pyper created a considerable stir with Lost Girls, a novel with a degree of psychological suspense rare in today’s writing. The Trade Mission (which worked on the premise that sometimes the enemy within is more dangerous than the enemy without) was equally impressive. Now we have The Damned, which concerns itself with twins – one of whom is both beautiful and monstrous. If the plot is reminiscent of Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Pyper manages to find something different and provocative in his treatment of this material.
Finally, THE VANISHING YEAR by Kate Moretti (Titan, £7.99) is a reminder that the publisher Titan is making concerted efforts to ensure that its thriller imprint delivers some of the most suspenseful writing in the genre. Kate Moretti’s novel (although firmly in the overfamiliar domestic noir idiom) is adroitly written — enough to make us (largely) forget the shop-worn premise.