The late Henning Mankell once said that the book he most wished he’d written was Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow — with the caveat that he would have reworked the unsatisfactory science-fictional ending (his reservations about that book’s coda were widely shared). Had the creator of Kurt Wallander lived to read Høeg’s new book, The Susan Effect (Harvill Secker, £16.99, trans. Martin Aitken), there is little doubt that he would once again have wanted to rejig the unlikely climax. Høeg’s signature character, Smilla Jaspersen, had an almost supernatural intuitive ability involving weather which aided her deductive skills, and the author echoes that here by giving the eponymous Susan a similar gift: the ability to compel interlocutors to tell the truth. But Susan – who also possesses an Olympian sexual appetite — is responsible for putting her equally odd family in danger when she is called on to investigate a clandestine think tank called ‘The Future Committee’, and finds herself in territory where the stakes are nothing short of apocalyptic.
Interestingly, Miss Smilla was marketed as literary fiction (about, among other things, Denmark’s post-colonial legacy), with its crime fiction trappings seen as incidental, in the same way that the axe murders in Crime and Punishment are less important than the study of guilt and redemption. But Høeg is evidently no snob, and now seems happy to move decisively into the less ‘respectable’ field of crime. Judged in genre terms, this is an artfully written, exuberant thriller with a mercurial central character. It will please many – or at least those in whom the unlikely climax doesn’t inspire a Mankell-like desire to do a rewrite.
From Denmark to Italy — but none of Høeg’s ornate use of language is to be found in the caustic and blunt Suburra by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo (Europa Editions, £13.99). This massive crime epic, already adapted for TV, is translated by Antony Shugaar in unfinessed fashion (‘Samurai ripped them into shreds. His friend never even fired a shot. Then they shovelled the remains into trash bags and dropped them into the Tiber.’). Italy, with its endemic political and religious corruption, is fertile territory for crime fiction. Choosing the Berlusconi era as it enters its long-overdue final phase, Bonini and De Cataldo (a magistrate and journalist respectively) set their narrative in Suburra, a rundown and lawless region of Rome. The financial crisis of 2008 has allowed the Mafia to gain even greater influence over the police, their own criminal foot soldiers, far-right extremists and a deeply compromised Catholic Church plagued by sex scandals. There’s no nuance here, but Suburra is a reminder that crime fiction can say as much about a society as many other genres.
More European criminality in the distinctly off-kilter The Accordionist (Harvill Secker, £16.99) – but then, the eccentric literary world of French writer Fred Vargas has quirkiness as a given. The eponymous musician, Clément Vauquer, is the principal suspect when two Parisian women are killed. Clément flees to sanctuary with Marthe, an ex-prostitute and the nearest thing he has known to a mother; Marthe then inveigles former investigator Kehlweiler into taking unorthodox routes to unmask the real murderer. As beguiling as previous entries in the ‘Three Evangelists’ series, the pleasure here comes from the comic interplay between the unconventional sleuths. And (as this is Fred Vargas) a pet toad has a significant role.
After so many tired police procedurals, who can produce something quietly different in the genre? Sarah Ward, demonstrably, as A Patient Fury (Faber, £12.99) proves. Like Ann Cleeves, Ward infuses a degree of Scandinavian chilliness into her resolutely English scenarios, and has a gift for the macabre image – a burning body, strung from a ceiling, turns slowly to face those watching. Here, a family is immolated and combative, diminutive DC Connie Childs finds that the key to the murders may lie with an as-yet-undiscovered fourth body.
Readers may initially wonder why The Frozen Woman by Jon Michelet (No Exit Press, £12.99) bagged a big Norwegian prize. But those who persist will realise that the longeurs are intentional, and Michelet’s insistence on the reader’s patience pays dividends. Winter holds Norway in its grip. Left-leaning lawyer Vilhem Thygesen finds a frozen corpse in his garden – that of a young woman, victim of a bloody knife attack. The police dismiss the murder as drug-related, but then a member of a biker gang once represented by Thygesen dies in what appears to be accidental circumstances. The common denominator in both cases – the sixtyish, bolshie lawyer – is suddenly of interest to the police, who have long nurtured a dislike of him. It doesn’t hurt that the translation is by the reigning monarch of the art, Don Bartlett.