I did warn you on the occasion of my opening column last month, that I would sometimes review books that do not strictly fall under the traditional crime and mystery purview. Never more so than this month, which also includes some science fiction, albeit of an investigative locked-room variation and otherwise more of the wide screen-technicolour MAD MAX variety, stretching the realms of the imagination, and even an erotic mini-masterpiece from a small press which just doesn’t deserve to be overlooked. But, for a change (to compensate?) there’s also a smattering of big names, and how much bigger can they get with Le Carre, Grafton and Patterson (whose improvisation on the theme of Amazon taking over the world could also qualify as SF, I suppose). While Italy provides us with our obligatory touch of noir, Anthony Horowitz begins a new series straight in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, with a sidekick that will certainly come as something of a surprise and newcomer Sullivan delivers the perfect bibliophilic mystery. Something for everyone!
BOOK OF THE MONTH: John Le Carre/A LEGACY OF SPIES (Viking) Although unanimously heralded for featuring the return of spy master Smiley, this is more about his sidekick Peter Guillam, a sometimes melancholy tale revisiting the past and, more specifically, the operation and some of the characters detailed in the classic THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Although Smiley is an ever present figure lurking in the shadows, as Guillam is forced to unravel complex threads of treachery, lies and deceit that have now come to roost, Smiley actually only makes a brief, if welcome, appearance at the conclusion of the tale, a meditation on the secret world and the damage done when the end always justified the means, not withstanding the human cost. Disillusioned, a bittersweet ballad about the morality of its characters and written, as ever, so beautifully and wittily, this is a perfect coda to the saga of the Circus, where so many much-loved, if dubious, characters we knew so well make fleeting passages on the scene. Le Carre at his best and you can’t get any better. Reminds us of what we lost when the series initially came to an end.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: L.N. Bey/BLUE (Visconti Press) As much as crime or science fiction, erotic fiction is a genre with particular tropes and it can sometimes be difficult to renew them beyond the acknowledged classics (and the dreadful 50 SHADES series which gave erotica a bad name and a brief period of popularity is certainly not a classic in my books). US author L.N. Bey has not so much attempted to innovate but to translate the new world of kink and lust into an everyday environment that all of us will recognize and scores a definite hit. Divorcee Janet’s voyage of self-discovery takes place in a familiar world in which the introduction of BDSM brings unexpected trials and pleasures. and as she gradually becomes involved with a series of similar seekers after the sexual truth, including the seductive if visibly damaged and dangerous Carolyn, the novel goes in unpredictable directions. It could all be happening next door to you but that’s what makes the story -with strong elements of fascinating mystery to keep the plot moving along- hypnotic and ever so realistic, well beyond the sexual hydraulics.
OF NOTE: James Patterson & Richard DiLallo/THE STORE (Century) It’s difficult to keep up with Patterson (and his sundry collaborators) and it had been a few years since I’d picked a book of his up. The theme of a powerful store which can deliver everything you want to your door and its increasingly nefarious influence and domination was one I couldn’t resist, what with my own love and hate relationship with Amazon! And I was quickly reminded of what makes Patterson such a splendid storyteller, short chapters and propulsive plotting and all. Two married journalists and writers whose career is going downhill find jobs at the eponymous store and their fortunes go in separate directions as one only sees the spectre of conspiracy while the other thrives. A breathless race to unmask the truth behind the Store’s aims quickly goes out of control as a manuscript of the expose detailing its evils becomes the object of quite sinister goings on. Great fun, and almost a dangerous endeavour as one wonders if Patterson is actually biting the hand that feeds him, but I reckon his books would keep on selling even if a certain online retailer were to cease stocking them!
Robert Cargill/ SEA OF RUST (Gollancz) Think WALL-E meets MAD MAX in this rumbumptious but also empathetic turbo-charged tale of a world in which humans have been wiped out by the might of artificial intelligences and only robots survive on the surface of a ravaged planet, where they scavenge, try and survive and themselves are in deep conflict with the computer intelligences. Brittle is one such scavenger and Cargill’s art is to make us feel deeply for a non human character, who is trying to figure out his place in the order of mechanical things and what it is to be non human. An inhabitant of the wastelands left by the devastating wars, he is racing against time to find a necessary spare part after he is attacked by another scavenger with similar motivation. The story races along, full of both overdrive action and much meditation about our place in the universe (both humans and their mechanical or quantum creations), but it’s the diversity of the robot characters and their plight that you take to heart in unexpected ways. Wonderfully evocative, a minor masterpiece and certainly quite different from anything else you’ve read for a long time.
Carlo Bonini & Giancarlo De Cataldo/SUBURRA (Europa) Penned by the magistrate and author of the classic ROMANZO CRIMINALE gangster saga and another leading Italian crime writer, SUBURRA is a splendid portrait of the corruption that took hold of the Roman region during the Berlusconi years as mafia, politicians and local hoods all dipped their fingers into the kitty created by a dubious building boom and fought to the death over their respective patches and a share of the loot. It’s no surprise this will soon be a TV mini-series in view of the colourful nature of the setting (a working class district of the Italian capital) and the richly drawn characters on both sides of the good and evil axis, although very few turn out innocent and come in shades of darker and darkest grey, make a mark on the imnagination The years of Italy’s social and political turmoil prove an inexhaustible landmap for rewarding narratives which only fiction can capture the nuances of. Epic, dark and sadly enlightening. I’ll be in line to watch the series when it comes to our screens.
Adam Roberts/THE REAL-TOWN MURDERS (Gollancz) Roberts is one of the prominent SF author of ideas (alongside another Brit, Ian Watson) and this locked room impossible mystery set in the almost future in which a body is found in the boot of a car inside a fully-automated factory where every inch is constantly under the scrutiny of CCTV, is a wonderful example of his craft and intelligence in full deployment. Alma is a private detective assigned to the case in a near future world where most of the population are in the grip of an addiction to the Shine, a web-based alternate reality in which people prefer to live, seeing that most jobs are now superfluous as computers and machines take on all of the burden. Alma has an ill partner at home in need of regular gene therapy which only Alma can provide, which badly limits her time and the distance she can put between herself, her erstwhile lover Marguerite and the actual case, which makes the fast-paced action an ersatz Hitchcockian race against time, which leaves one a tad breathless. A wonderful variation on one of my favourite crime fiction sub-genres. Gripping and ingenious.
Matthew Sullivan/MIDNIGHT AT THE BRIGHT IDEAS BOOKSTORE (Heinemann) Lydia works in a old-fashioned bookstore in Denver, the likes of which will have all bookworms pining and nostalgic for the good old days of bookselling. She is also the survivor of a horrible triple murder case some decades earlier, which has never been solved but still haunts her and changed the course of her life, where the ‘Hammerman’ as the culprit is called was never caught. The Bright Ideas bookstore has a cohort of regulars and hangers on affectionately called the BookFrogs and when one such, whom Lydia had taken a shine to, Joey, commits suicide one night in the store, leaving Lydia enigmatic messages made out of cut out books and a photo of her as child in his pocket, she is compelled to investigate the case which soon brings back memories and embroils her again in the aftermath of the triple murder. Sullivan’s likeable debut is quirky and classic in form and he cleverly draws all the threads between today and yesterday together, with much attractive book lore and memorable characters, before a bittersweet epilogue is reached.
Anthony Horowitz/THE WORD IS MURDER (Century) This appears to be the first in what would be Horowitz’s first adult crime series and it’s a winner from the get go. He already displayed a great deal of affection for golden age crime tropes in his clever MAGPIE MURDERS and now takes matters one step forward with a duo of investigating sleuths, with a wonderfully original touch, insofar as Anthony Horowitz, the actual writer and creator of FOYLE’S WAR becomes quirky detective Hawthorne’s involuntary sidekick in a puzzling case in which a woman is killed shortly after making what appeared to be premature arrangements for her own funeral. Putting himself on the page as a, believable protagonist, allows much in the way of fascinating diversions about the writing and publishing scene and the shady ex-police officer who leads the merry dance is also a great creation with the interaction between the two both humorous and worthy of Holmes/Watson, Poirot/Hastings. Much tongue in cheek but faithful to all the rules of classic mystery writing, this is wonderful entertainment and delivers a plot that moves along with clockwork precision.
Richard Kadrey/THE KILL SOCIETY (HarperVoyager) Already the ninth instalment in the Sandman Slim series of fantastica, which shows no sign of running out of steam. The hard as heels necromancer and purveyor of trouble to the underworld has now been sent to the Tenebrae, the land of the lost dead, and must find his way back, to resume his role as unwilling arbiter in the many conflicts between Heaven and Hell. Here he joins a caravan of the damned on a mysterious crusade and the plot goes in Mad Max-with- exorcists-and-religious-fanatics tagging along for the fast and furious ride direction. Blood-splattered, ever imaginative, with a quip a page worthy of Raymond Chandler, blasphemous and sardonic, the Sandman Slim saga is a true guilty pleasure, with its vicious fighting angels, its developing panoramas and vistas of places worst than hell, and a vision of a series of different afterlives with imagination unbridled. More please.
Sue Grafton/Y IS FOR YESTERDAY (Mantle) Then California scriptwriter (and daughter of the now sadly forgotten crime author C.W. Grafton) Sue Grafton began her series featuring feisty private eye Kinsey Milhone in 1982 with A IS FOR ALIBI. She swore to complete the whole alphabet before writing anything else and has kept her word. Now we reach Y, with just one final volume to come! Set in 1989, Kinsey is employed to track down a blackmailer in a case involving the death of a young girl from an elite private school in 1979, and the filming of her assault, after the man who shot her is released from jail. Meanwhile, a vicious sociopath Kinsey has had dealings with in the previous volume in the series makes an unwelcome new appearance on the scene, with revenge on his crazed mind. The narrative alternates between the past and Kinsey’s present, balancing the pace of the investigation with a detailed, forensics-like examination of the original case from which all the trouble stems, as Grafton effortlessly constructs her mysterious house of cards. Grafton has no peer as a plotter and brings all her chracters to life and Kinsey herself never disappoints as a fully-developed character. Not just for the fans.