No two books are alike in this month’s selection as we roam between a dystopian USA and the intricacies of the US legal system, skirt around such topical subjects as Brexit and its dubious cast of politicians, a case of almost familiar sexual harassment, the disturbing first-person narrative of a stalker who goes just that bit too far, romps through a country house which never ends (read the book to find out what I mean…), 1916 pre-feminist lady cops in full flow, the dark side of the American dream and disillusion, four decades of family travails, an heir to Sherlock Holmes in present day California and so much more, including a classy comic reissue by the much-lamented Don Westlake. The choice is yours.
BOOK OF THE MONTH: Chloe Benjamin/THE IMMORTALISTS (Tinder) In New York in 1969, the four Gold siblings tempt fate and behind their parents’ back go to consult with a mysterious, colourful fortune-teller on the Lower East Side who is reputed to be able to predict with uncanny precision when they will die. How this affects each of them makes for a poignant thriller of sorts about the fabric of life, the ties that bind and unfolds a history of the past few decades with its many tragedies and occasional epiphanies. Whether the fortune-teller is actually a fake or not makes for a mystery that is only resolved when the final sibling comes to term with her mortality and the prior, predicted deaths of her brothers and sisters and attempts to break the circle of inevitability. The heavy burden of Aids, magicians and their assistants, longevity research, the vocation of medicine all play a part as the embedded fates of the characters twist and turn to surprising effect. Moving, rather beautiful, a mystery about how our lives and fate intertwine, this is a novel that will stay on your mind for ages after you’ve read it and I cannot recommend it any higher.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: William Boyle/GRAVESEND (No Exit) A potent slice of dark Americana about the forgotten working class abandoned by the golden dream that was once the foundation of the USA, this striking novel has gathered praise and awards in Europe, and deservingly so. Imprisoned for several years for being responsible for bullying a young gay man to his accidental death, Ray Boy Calabrese returns to his native Brooklyn to face the music and the vengeance of the dead boy’s bitter brother whose whole life was destroyed by the incident. Another lost soul, a young woman, whom both knew in their youth has returned from L.A. also hoping to rebuild her life. Their paths mesh, part and join again in a sad waltz of despair and inevitability. Stark, realistic to the max and like an accident about to happen, Gravesend is not just a place or a book, but a paean to sorrow and a powerful one at that.
Alafair Burke/THE WIFE (Faber) Psychological thrillers come and go in the wake of the success of Gillian Flynn and, the much lesser Paula Hawkins, but James Lee Burke’s daughter Alafair is quickly developing into a true mistress of the domestic mystery genre, following on from her impressive ‘The Ex’, some minor characters from which return here. Caterer Angela has fallen into what appears to be the perfect marriage with a university professor who seems too good to be true, and allows her to forget her own tragic past. But is Jason all he appears to be? When a sexual harassment case is brought against him, their lives fall apart and the seeds of doubt begin to fester to unhealthy effect. As an attorney herself, Burke knows the corridors of US law inside out and this adds a perfect veneer to what is not just a rather topical thriller, but a turbo-charged read with a maze of twists and a surfeit of genuinely human emotions.
Amy Stewart/MISS KOPP’S MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS (Scribe) Already the 3rd novel in the adventures of the determined Kopp sisters (with a fourth volume already scheduled for this autumn…). Inspired by a set of true life female detectives who were active at the turn of the 20th century, this is a breezy series which begs to become an all-time favourite. Deputy sheriff Constance Kopp is more than just a pioneering sleuthette, feisty and pig-headed, an early proto-feminist with a bite, while remarkable sister Fleurette is equally subversive in thought and action when a group of young women are jailed on somewhat dubious charges in Hackensack in 1916. A light-hearted historical romp with much zest and ingenuity and a series that begs comparison with the late Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, albeit set in the past, but blending equal thrills with a strong message.
Mick Herron/LONDON RULES (John Murray) Jackson Lamb and his ill-assorted crew of failed spies (and dubious human beings) at run-down Slough House are on the case for the fifth welcome occasion in this somewhat topical post-Brexit vote thriller which takes a delightful, cheeky aim of the dagger at many contemporary politicians, public figures and events. Herron is fast becoming the heir apparent to the Le Carre throne, as his absurd but all too believable characters continue to be a scourge of the establishment despite their many personal failings and lurk in the corridors of powder with gleeful vulgarity and make the reader believe that it is all absolutely true, however absurd or far-etched the scenario, Fast-paced, wonderfully profane as ever and with razor-sharp dialogue that had me chortling on almost every single page, this is an indispensable addition to what is possibly the best contemporary spy thriller series around. More, please.
Leo Benedictus/CONSENT (Faber) A literary stalker novel with a wicked difference and in the second person that never quite delivers what you expect as its tale of lies, love and deceit unfolds in snake-like manner. Recently in the money due to the death of a relative, our main character quietly relates his fascination with unknown women and as his story develops we come to realise he is more than just a stalker when his twisted gaze falls on Frances, a management consultant whose life he proceeds to complicate, spoils and then positively ruins in what he feels is an expression of love, which he continuously attempts to justify to himself (and the complicit reader) with the help of cod and real philosophy. As his action soon turn to the murderous, we begin to sympathise somewhat less with him and recognise him for what he truly is: a genuinely disturbed character under the guise of the ordinariness of a Patricia Highsmith character. Compelling and unsettling both.
Joe Ide/RIGHTEOUS (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) In ‘IQ” his debut novel, Ide introduced a fascinating black junior version of Sherlock almost altruistically roaming the Los Angeles ghettos for small changes and favours, the fascinating Isaiah Quintabe, alongside his criminal sidekick Dodson. The follow up is a bit of a disappointment by comparison, lacking some of the innovative humour and quirkiness of IQ’s first adventure as it focuses principally on Isaiah persisting in his investigation of his brother Marcus’s death, and lacks the broad canvas of left of field characters he interacted with on his initial outing. Unsurprisingly, new angles are revealed about the car accident which ended his brother’s life which question his past integrity. Bittersweet, and more classic in style, but still a fast, compelling read, this feels like a novel written to deepen the profile of his character and, hopefully, he will return next time in full quirky flow.
Donald E. Westlake/HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER (Hard Case Crime) A much-needed reissue for a genuine comic masterpiece from the keyboard of the late Westlake, one of the few crime authors who could inject humour into a thriller plot without making it feel derivative (only the blessed Carl Hiaasen is his equal…). Hapless prankster Harry ends up in jail after a joke that goes terribly wrong only to find himself inveigled into a behind bars gang who have found a way to leave the prison at will and actually wish to take advantage of the situation to rob a couple of banks in all impunity. All the while, the warden appears to have it in for Harry due to a series of further pranks taking place within the jail’s walls, which all point to Harry, although he is quite innocent. Add the fact that he meets his perfect woman on his furloughs, is corralled into stealing explosives from a nearby army camp and a whole series of imbroglios and colourful characters full of absurdity, and you have the perfect recipe for belly laughs, chuckles and smiles unbound. Entertainment at its very best.
Stuart Turton/THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE (Raven) Decidedly one of the most original debuts of recent years, Turton’s novel comes across as quirky blend of Golden Age tropes and period (the 1920s to 1930s) straight out of Agatha Christie and the mad illogic logic of a movie like ‘Groundhog Day’. A fiendish plot sees the eponymous character murdered hundreds of times at a party thrown by her parents at a traditional country house and each day hapless Aiden Bishop is caught in a time loop in a vain attempt to prevent the crime from taking place. All the protagonists are straight out of a chocolate box of classic crime cliches and are, fascinatingly, embodied by the confused Aiden in his travails, from butler to maid, footman and guests. A lengthy tome which, albeit traditional, presents a set of hardy challenges to the reader; a thriller, a puzzle, an intellectual jeu d’esprit, but overall a great and rewarding read for fans of traditional crime, crossword challenges and a taste for something different.
Adam Sternbergh/THE BLINDS (Faber) American author Sternbergh continues to cross genres with cheeky impunity, following on from his two endearing dystopian hit guy Spademan novels. Another slightly off of centre setting is on offer here where the federal switness relocation programme for either compromised testifiers or actual criminals in need of protection has managed to erase their memories and relocate a mixed bunch of characters in a strange town set in the middle of the desert. But the sheriff and his assistants are not all they are supposed to be and the past is soon catching up with both culprits and innocents in this unsettling tale of deception that marries the atmosphere of Philip K. Dick and the bloody shades of darkness of a Jim Thompson. Never less than a fascinating read and with a final shoot out worthy of Quentin Tarantino, this will surprise and delight.