Ex CIA-operative Jason Matthews has written a provocative (and timely) novel using the notion of Russian influence in America’s corridors of power; The Kremlin’s Candidate (Michael Joseph, £12.99) provides a kinetic conclusion to his ‘Red Sparrow’ trilogy (the Jennifer Lawrence film of the first novel in the sequence is in cinemas now). Admiral Audrey Rowland is set to be the next director of the CIA — a useful appointment for the Kremlin, as she is a mole working for Russia. Rowland, however, has been sexually compromised in the past by Dominika Egorova, an American spy working in the East, who is a Putin favourite to head Russia’s foreign intelligence service. And Dominika’s exposure is inevitable if Rowland becomes CIA director. Dominika and her lover, CIA agent Nate Nash, find themselves in very dangerous waters. The political inflections of Matthews’ writing lean to the right, but the spycraft here is utterly authentic-seeming (unsurprising given Matthew’s intelligence background) and the urgent thriller mechanics keenly orchestrated. The characterisation is, admittedly, unnuanced — Putin comes across like a Roger Moore-era Bond villain, and even if readers think that appropriate, we’re used to le Carré-style complexity these days.
Undisputed king of the Icelandic thriller, the veteran Arnaldur Indriðason is enjoying an Indian summer with such books as The Shadow Killer (Harvill Secker, £14.99, trans. Victoria Cribb). We first met Detective Flóvent (dour in manner, as befits all Nordic sleuths) in The Shadow District, and the economical, pared-down style of that book is replicated here. Reykjavik 1941. The body of a travelling salesman is discovered in a basement, murdered by a bullet from a Colt .45 (pointing to the killer being a member of the Allied occupation forces). The city is in chaos as the British hands over to the Americans, and the relations between servicemen and local women are a headache for the authorities. Flóvent is under intense pressure to solve the case before a pending visit by Winston Churchill; the screws are tightened by the fact that the British appear to be involved in the murder. And there is another disturbing element in the case – medical experiments on Icelandic children a decade earlier. There are echoes here of the earlier baroque flourishes of such Indriðason books as Jar City, but he is altogether a more austere writer these days. However, those attuned to the Indriðason method will find that he has not lost an iota of his authority.
If you’re beginning to think we’ve had too many unreliable female narrators recently, take heart from the fact that there is still some sterling work being done in this nigh-exhausted genre. Exhibit Alexandra (Michael Joseph, £12.99), an astutely written, complex debut by Natasha Bell, presents the modern family as a powder keg of deception and lies. Mark is devastated by the disappearance of the wife, Alex, he loves deeply. North Yorkshire police discover clothing covered in blood, but offer little help — and Mark’s own investigations uncover some very murky and perplexing secrets. Bell’s clever strategies here are numerous. Counterintuitively, the novel is entirely narrated by the missing wife, Alex, who may or may not be in captivity, and her guesses at her husband’s behaviour are extrapolated from her knowledge of him. Another theme is an uneasy conflict between life and art – Alex is a performance artist, which may lead the reader to make some rash conclusions. In fact, even seasoned genre aficionados will be taken aback by the blind alleys we are taken down in this assured outing.
It’s the hurdle at which the author of many a much-acclaimed debut has fallen: the dreaded second novel. How do you manage to top – or at least match — the first effort which had reviewers scrabbling for encomiums? The British writer Joseph Knox was doubtless exercised by this syndrome – his debut Sirens swept all before it, but it had taken eight years to write. Now we have the follow-up, The Smiling Man (Doubleday, £12.99) – has Knox overcome the traditional jinx? We are once again in a Manchester that frequently seems like an anteroom to hell. In a massive disused hotel, The Palace, detectives Waits and Sutcliffe encounter the eponymous smiling man. He is dead, with every identifying mark (including teeth and fingerprints) obliterated. But as Aidan Waits reconstructs the fragments of the dead man’s life, there is a sinister nemesis scrutinising his own. A series of ever-more terrifying encounters are in store. Knox’s first novel was pedal-to-the-floor stuff, and this one is even more powerful, with Waits the less-than-admirable protagonist again after his first appearance in Sirens. There are two narratives here (the second concerns a child living in mortal fear of his mother’s lover), but neither offers much respite in terms of the escalating tension. One thing is sure: Knox is no one-hit wonder.
While Jeffrey Archer’s publishers promote him as ‘the world’s greatest storyteller’, discerning readers know that the title arguably belongs to the veteran Robert Goddard, whose quiet, unshowy command of narrative has never faltered over a lengthy career. Panic Room (Bantam Press, £18.99), like most of his work, owes nothing to either his predecessors or even his own previous books. In an uninhabited mansion on a Cornish cliff, a reclusive young woman with a chequered past, Blake, is acting as housesitter. She has not discovered that the house has a steel-lined panic room – until a variety of unsavoury individuals come looking for the house’s missing owner Harkness, a rogue Big Pharma specialist. The latter’s possibly murderous secrets are to become a pressing concern for Blake. Tense enough, and full of characteristic Goddard twists, but more scabrous – and very different — fare is on offer in The Bone Keeper by the Liverpudlian/Italian writer Luca Veste (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), which begins with four children entering a disused tunnel haunted by a local bogeyman known as the ‘Bone Keeper’. Only three will emerge, with DC Louise Henderson obliged to unearth the grim truth behind a legend. As ever with Veste, this is uncompromising stuff – an edgy synthesis of horror and crime. Incontrovertibly not for the squeamish.
Barry Forshaw’s American Noir is published by Pocket Essentials/No Exit Press