A New Year is with us and, as ever, a varied assortment of great mysteries and thrillers (and a distinctive oddity of a book that defies classification) which traditionally span the globe, from remote areas of Switzerland, Sweden and Spain and the urban crime spots of Washington DC, Berlin, New York, Barcelona and all points in between. And looking forward, 2019 is a year that will gift us with new titles by John Le Carre, Mick Herron, Erin Morgenstern, Thomas Harris, Emily St John Mandel, as well as on a minor note two anthologies edited by yours truly (although not a new novel, unless I can complete its writing in record time, so more likely 2020…), so much to look forward too!
BOOK OF THE MONTH: Dan Fesperman/SAFE HOUSES (Head of Zeus)
Fesperman is one of those rare authors whose every novel is radically different from the preceding one, although never losing his mojo in the process and his characteristic insights into both the personal and the societal. The unexplained murder on a Maryland farm of his parents by a young man in the present day presents his sister with an enigma she is compelled to solve, while in 1974 in Germany at the peak of the Cold War, junior CIA officer Helen Abell, who is in charge of the administration for the Firm’s safe houses in Germany comes across a conversation that should not have taken place on a routine inspection visit. The two plot strands braid at increasing speed, leading to a tense chase espionage thriller that rings all the bells for both humanity and complexity and keeps the reader on the hook throughout. Mixed loyalties, betrayal and inter-governmental rivalries are just the tip of the spying iceberg in this outstanding novel that has an ominous ring of truth. Rewarding.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Michael Gross/THE LAST BROTHER (Macmillan)
Partly inspired by his own family background, this compelling historical crime novel moves from the meticulous WW2 wartime thrills of Gross’s previous novels THE ONE MAN and THE SPY to 1930s New York and the bloody rivalry between Jewish and American mafia groups. Set in the garment trade of the Lower East Side of New York, we follow the rise of self-made business tycoon Morris Raab from 12 year old apprentice to ruthless entrepreneur, until he inevitably attracts the attention of the Mob who control the local unions, with whom he, and his two brothers, had unfortunate clashes when younger. But not all brothers are made of the same cloth and the family ties are soon strained and the war between the two groups takes on sadly personal aspects which stretches their loyalty to breaking point. A wonderfully evocative look at the Jewish experience in America and a tense thriller with memorable characters, this has echoes of THE GODFATHER movies, albeit in a different context. A great read.
Dov Alfon/A LONG NIGHT IN PARIS (Maclehose)
A rare example of an Israeli spy thriller set over the course of a single day and night with the narrative switching constantly between Paris and Tel Aviv. When an Israeli businessman is abducted at CDG airport, the head of a military intelligence unit who was intriguingly on the same flight begins to investigate with the assistance back home of a young female officer who has been appointed his second in command but whom he has never even met. Interdepartmental rivalries and political allegiances appear to be confusing at first, what with the plethora of interests at work both at home and within the French authorities, but a picture soon becomes clear of interests at various levels of government in the affair in both countries which soon spawns an avalanche of bodies and a race against time involving mysterious Chinese commandos, powerful US donors and the casino business in Macau. Compulsively readable. The insights into the technology available to spies today is enlightening, if worrying, as is the revelations of rival factions within the Israeli intelligence forces and army and hints of corruption at the top, which echo newspaper headlines and suggest Dov Alfon is no fan of his present government!
Caroline Kepnes/PROVIDENCE (Simon & Schuster)
A radical change of direction from the author of the Joel Goldberg novels YOU and HIDDEN BODIES (recently made into an interesting TV series), which had a fascinating stalker and victim psychological dynamic unlike any other. This almost begins as a young adult novel with gentle Jon and Chloe silently falling in love with each other as teenagers, only for Jon to disappear and Chloe to later embark on another relationship. Four years later, Jon reappears, albeit changed, from what was a kidnapping but he now has acquired curious supernatural powers he finds it difficult to control. As the title indicates, this ambivalent thriller cum love story has strong echoes of H.P. Lovecraft, who put the town of Providence on the literary map, and the combination of genres, although at first unsettling, works well as the book’s varied elements coalesce, with a curious sleuth named Eggs also becoming involved. If you don’t mind a story that falls between various genre stools, then you’ll enjoy PROVIDENCE.
Amy Stewart/MISS KOPP JUST WON’T QUIT (Scribe)
The fourth instalment in the supremely entertaining tales of Hackensack New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff sees Constance at a crossroads both action and career-wise when she is tasked to pick up a woman whose husband wants her committed to an asylum with no visible evidence of any mental defect. But taking the helpless woman’s defence is not the thing to do in election year and soon Constance is at odds with the powers that be and even the assistance of her lively sisters Norma and Fleurette seems unlikely to resolve her dilemma. Based on a trio of actual women who flourished around 1916 in the USA and were pioneers in female law enforcement, this series is highly popular in the USA and I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on in a similar manner in the UK. Historically fascinating and with truculent characters and intrigues, these books are a guilty pleasure for fans of Janet Plum or Maisie Dobbs and deserve a larger audience.
Jerry Raine/BARCA LONER (CreateSpace)
Raine is slowly building a strong reputation as a wry observer of the low life and petty criminals as book after book cements his detached, ironic worldview. Following a lack of sales when published traditionally, he has sadly migrated to the self-publishing sphere, although some of his earlier titles might soon be making a welcome reappearance from a new No Exit imprint. He deserves a much wider readership. In his new novel, his latest loser chump, Newton, also known as Ringo, flees to Spain with money stolen from a Hastings drug dealer. All too quickly his involvement locally with a tall, attractive American woman brings him to the attention a British cop on the prowl for men on the run, assorted bar hounds and no gooders and inevitably the Spanish police, not discounting the woman’s jealous ex-boyfriend. A merry roundabout of petty villainy and involuntary comedy ensues against the background of Barcelona locals striving for Catalonian independence. Good fun.
Hanna Jameson/THE LAST (Viking)
THE WALKING DEAD almost meet Agatha Christie in this significant departure for Jameson, best known until now for her breezy but gritty London Underground series which began publication when she was just out of her teens. Jon Keller, an American academic is stranded in a remote Swiss hotel, isolated from the rest of the world, following a conference there when rumours of a devastating nuclear war emerge and the hotel’s twenty guests and staff are cut off from the rest of the world. Then a body is found, which points inevitably to a murderer in their midst. Should Jon and his involuntary companions investigate or should they attempt to leave the hotel and find out if there are survivors beyond the surrounding forest? But then some of the guests do not appear to be who they should be and suspicions flare like a virus out of control. Definitely a page-turner, this genre-blending novel moves like a freight train with no brakes on and races towards an explosive set of revelations which will satisfy any hungry thriller reader.
Lina Bengsdotter/FOR THE MISSING (Orion)
A powerful Scandi Noir debut by a promising new author. Detectives Charline ‘Charlie’ Lager and Anders Bratt are assigned from their Stockholm base to the remote village of Gullspäng, where Charlie, unknown to her colleagues, once grew up alongside her alcoholic mother and bears the brunt of many dark, repressed secrets which have shaped her life. Annabelle Roos, a local girl has gone missing following a party and the investigation into the case will dredge up memories Charlie would rather ignore as the convergence between the truth and her own dark side make for uncomfortable hours. Atmospheric, evocative and with a heroine who overcomes some of the genre’s clichés, this is a first-class procedural with all shades of grey unveiled like onion peel as the narrative progresses. With various parallel story strands deepening the mystery before they all come together in a flurry of unwelcome truths, this makes for an altogether excellent thriller.
Agustín Martinez/VILLAGE OF THE LOST GIRLS (Quercus)
A fast-paced Spanish thriller with a wonderful mountain setting which almost becomes another of the book’s main characters in its overall ominous presence. Five years ago, two local eleven year old young girls, Ana and Lucia disappeared on their way home from school. The case was never solved. Now, Ana reappears inside a crashed car, wounded and traumatised, and the case is re-opened to find out who was the girl’s kidnapper, and ascertain whether Lucia might still be alive and held somewhere. Sent to remote Monte Perdido from Madrid police headquarters, Inspector Sara Campos and her superior Santiago Bain, are tasked with the new investigation and re-examining the flawed enquiries from the initial case. But the small village where evil lurks is reluctant to open up its dark secrets. At times genuinely poignant and melancholy, crime writing at its most exemplary.
Simon Sellars/APPLIED BALLARDIANISM (Urbanomic)
A rather unique book that veers between false autobiography, gonzo travel reportage and the altogether bizarre, this is definitely not a crime book, but one I arrived at because of my own past friendship and admiration for the late J.G. Ballard. Sellars is one of the few generally recognized experts on JGB and we have shared covers on several occasions. A breathless meditation on how the works of Ballard can colonize your imagination and infect your life like a virus, this sees a young researcher setting off on his travels until he almost becomes a new Ballardian character in his quest for the inner space dear to JGB. Metafiction, literary criticism and archaeology, fictional memoir involving encounters with telepaths, violence on a worldwide scale, UFO sightings, this is a fever dream masquerading as a volume of strictly non-academic ramblings and between the lines discoveries. Fascinating, although not for everyone. Best be a Ballard fun already before you venture into these highly murky pages.