The best thrillers offer something more ambitious than simply raising the pulse rate of the reader. In Star of the North by DB John (Harvill Secker, £12.99), it’s geopolitical complexity: the book is set in the dictatorship of North Korea, and includes unusual protagonists as well as an unsparing picture of the regime, contrasting the wealth of the elite with the grinding poverty of the disadvantaged. North Korean/African-American Jenna Williams is desperate for news of her missing twin, who vanished in South Korea over a decade ago. She is perfectly placed for CIA recruitment, and is dispatched on a hazardous mission to save her sister. There she meets Cho, an ambitious politician in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who reluctantly agrees to help her, and has a surprising encounter on a train with the country’s youthful leader. John (who co-authored North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee’s memoir The Girl with Seven Names) parlays his knowledge of the country into a grim but trenchant narrative with echoes of Martin Cruz Smith and Robert Harris, creating a masterly evocation of life under the Kim regime with everyone, rich or poor, living in fear of the all-seeing State Security.
Abusive men continue to stalk the thriller genre, as two new novels attest. Christobel Kent is best known for her intuitive Italian sleuth Sandro Cellini, but has recently moved into the territory of the psychological thriller. What We Did (Sphere, £12.99) is set in a sedate English university city where the heroine, Bridget, works hard at her business, secure in the love of her husband and son. But she has a troubled past: her music teacher abused her as a student, and now arrives menacingly back in her life. When Bridget is driven to the edge, the consequences for everyone – including herself — are devastating. Kent’s writing has always possessed literary elegance, and that is fully in evidence here. Her earlier work maintained a balance between tense frissons and the allure of sultry foreign climes, but her subject here is the limit to which human beings can be led by the behaviour of others. Few will miss the baking sun of Italy, given the suspense Kent engenders these days in her own rainy stamping ground.
Another malign male terrorises the heroine of Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough (HarperCollins, £12.99). Lisa’s life has been blighted by her violent alcoholic father John, but she has managed to escape with her daughter Ava. Her friend Marilyn also has secrets – notably that her marriage is by no means as happy as it appears on the surface. Then Ava saves the life of a child, and the media coverage alerts John to their whereabouts. In extremis, Lisa and Marilyn resort to drastic measures. Pinborough’s approach to the psychological suspense novel has sometimes utilised supernatural elements (eschewed here) and invariably possesses a surreal, dreamlike quality. If the steely grip of the earlier Behind her Eyes is more fitfully evident, the juggling of multiple viewpoints shows great élan, and the author’s storytelling is as sure-footed as ever.
The rejuvenation of the espionage thriller continues apace with Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood (Michael Joseph, £12.99), his followup to the well-reviewed Moskva and the second book to feature resourceful British intelligence officer Major Tom Fox. In 1986, with the Cold War showing signs of thawing, Fox is sent to East Berlin to engineer the repatriation of a defector. The mission is compromised, and Tom, accused of murder, soon has pitiless Stasi agents on his trail. Grimwood had a previous career as an SF writer under the name Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and the off-kilter, vaguely phantasmagoric atmosphere here recalls his earlier books.
Another genre currently in rude health is the historical thriller, with impressive debuts appearing by the week. The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve (Raven, £12.99) is a highly original if slightly overlong piece of work, inaugurating a series set in Victorian London. This vision of the 1880s is of stygian hue, with the hero Leo accused of the murder of his lover Maria and obliged to track down the real killer. ‘Leo’ was born ‘Charlotte’, and the transgender theme – unfamiliar in the genre — is handled with sympathetic understanding. Reeve, however, resists any special pleading regarding his unorthodox protagonist.
Isabelle Grey honed her skills working for television, and Wrong Way Home (Quercus, £20.99) demonstrates her command of the thriller idiom. DI Grace Fisher is working on a 25-year-old cold case in which a woman was raped and murdered near the site of a fire in Southend. DNA evidence opens up new avenues, but with a suggestion that the Force was less than diligent at the time of the original crime. As in earlier Grace Fisher outings, Grey furnishes a striking, totally unpretentious thriller that keeps the reader pleasurably perplexed.
Barry Forshaw’s latest book, Historical Noir, is published by Pocket Essentials/No Exit.