A month somehow dominated by male writers, I fear. Not a conscious choice but the way the postal deliveries and publishers’ schedules align. Again, a whole spectrum of themes, moods, backgrounds and styles as we cruise through the pages and visit the decadent splendours of La Dolce Vita in Rome, the glittering casinos of the French Riviera with a young James Bond, dark caverns in America’s Death Valley, the crumbling facade of Cornwall, contemporary Los Angeles and the savage heat of the Mexican desert, nearby Las Vegas, the Australian outback and Oxfordshire after the fall of civilisation. And many other places, known and unknown. Quite a literary menu!
BOOK OF THE MONTH
Domenic Stansberry/THE WHITE DEVIL (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
A stunning piece of noir, loosely based on John Webster’s classic Renaissance play, which evokes both the Rome of Fellini and shades of Patricia Highsmith. Vicki is now better known as Vittoria since she married an Italian politician and her time in Italy is shaped by her ambiguous past and present relationship with her manipulative brother Johnny, whose part in the death of the Italian’s first wife is equally puzzling. Love triangles, an insidiously seedy atmosphere of corruption unleashed, a femme fatale like no other and a lush background makes for a breathless tale which shifts effortlessly from beauty to crime, in a both lyrical and terse, Hemingway-like narrative which follows Vittoria’s dangerous career from the salons and palazzi of the Italian capital to perilous exile in an unnamed South American city and a cortege of unnatural deaths. You keep on rooting for the morally dubious heroine even though you know she is not to be trusted until her inevitable fall from grace. A revelation.
Anthony Horowitz/FOREVER AND A DAY (Jonathan Cape)
Beginning with Kingsley Amis, countless writers have attempted to take on the James Bond mantle, but the most successful in catching the right zeitgeist, style and attitude has definitely been Horowitz, with his initial attempt TRIGGER MORTIS. His new outing brings us back to the very beginning of Bond’s career, prior to CASINO ROYALE, when he inherits the 007 code name. His mission to the South of France in the 1950s brings along the expected Riviera casino capers, treacherous sidekicks, seductive sirens with just that mysterious glint in their eyes and Corsican gangsters with the right touch of evil, and one can easily imagine a young Sean Connery racing through the pages and dispensing the quips and blows. The plot is at times a bit lapidary but then it’s also a function of Bond growing into Bond and the book remains high octane fun all along, including a witty explanation of Bond’s ingrained taste for his favourite drink shaken and not stirred that will bring a wry smile to the face of all 007 aficionados.
Nicolas Obregon/SINS AS SCARLET (Michael Joseph)
I was mightily impressed by Obregon’s debut BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA and its haunted Japanese cop Kosuke Iwata and disappointed that my fellow judges for the CWA Creasey First Novel Dagger were not as keen as me on the book. Obregon now returns with a follow up in which Kosuke is now working as an unusual small cases private investigator in Los Angeles in a bid to escape his troubled past. Of course, disruption inevitably follows in his footsteps when his late wife’s sister is murdered and his erstwhile mother in law has him swear vengeance. His quest for redemption will plunge him into the horror of America’s illegal immigration nightmare and dark dealings indeed in the twilight heat of the Mexican desert. Obregon is half English and half Spanish and now lives in California and is building into a rather unique voice, bleak, compassionate, complex, and I am already looking forward to the next criminal nightmares poor Kosuke will have to tackle next in his relentless travails.
Martyn Waites/THE OLD RELIGION (Bonnier Zaffre)
Newcastle-born actor and author Martyn Waites’ early books were wonderful examples of British regional noir with an acute sense of the social mores of the late 20th century. When, I assume, sales didn’t match the glowing reviews, he reinvented himself as psychological thriller author Tanya Carver (in sometimes collaboration with his ex-wife) somehow ahead of the curve. He now reappears as himself and is back working in the gritty social-realist vein he is best at exploring. Protagonist Tom Kilgannon is an ex-cop now in the witness protection programme, working as a barman in Cornwall. Waites is adept at sketching post-Brexit Britain and the economic devastation that blights certain areas of the UK and his social awareness adds another dimension to his writing. The plot in which Kilgannon is drawn has echoes of THE WICKER MAN, with hints of rural pagan mysticism and muted violence just waiting to explode in the light of day and this compelling volume could well be the first in a major series, with a central character painted in all shades of grey and anything but cardboard-thin.
Mick Herron/THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED (John Murray)
Herron takes time off from his splendid Jackson Lamb series and has come up with a fascinating short stand-alone London novel, which will stick in the reader’s memory for a long time. Featuring two of the saddest characters I’ve come across in ages, this is not, despite initial impressions, and without putting a serious spoiler in the works, a spy novel. Maggie, a hapless London office worker has been recruited to spy on the corporation where she works by an MI5 operative and the job turns out badly and she finds herself harboured in a safe house for a lengthy period, her only contact with the outside world being her shifty handler and lover who keeps her abreast of life outside the basement flat where the political situation has radically changed and she is still being hunted. The truth slowly emerges halfway through the tale, and turns the plot into a nail-biting psychological thriller. Tense, topical, rather compelling and a wonderful demonstration of another side altogether to Herron’s talent, and also something of a challenge with only three characters to speak of!
Anthony Mosawi/TRUST NO ONE (Michael Joseph)
Mosawi, a transfuge from the world of film production, delivers an exciting, fast-moving thriller with strong echoes of James Swallow and I AM PILGRIM. A seemingly invincible young woman with almost supernatural powers is on a quest for revenge against the men, or governmental organisations who turned her into the monster of sorts she has become.
But what is her connection with the terrible and unpredictable acts of terrorism being committed against the State? The story unfolds like a deviously clever jigsaw being assembled of disparate pieces, while always keeping the reader on edge with unforeseen twists. Sara Eden is a fascinating character in the Lisbeth Salander mould, albeit with a sometimes preposterous talent for foiling everything that is thrown at her which borders on the impossible, but her tale of coming of age and realisation is never less than a page turner in fifth gear. Where the author will take her next, after the final major twist is unveiled will be intriguing.
Dave Hutchinson/SHELTER (Solaris)
Hutchinson, author of the splendid future spy award-winning Europe series, now enters a shared world environment which other SF writers will keep on enlarging, the first of which being the equally talented Adam Roberts in the autumn. Following an apocalypse caused by the fall to Earth of two comets known as The Sisters, Britain (and, we assume, the rest of the world) is in a state of savage breakdown, parts of the country being underwater and others in terrible ruin. Against this background, two surviving families in Oxfordshire are pitted against each other in a bid for salvation and prominence. Bleak but compelling this opening volume of what might turn out to be a major saga is a tasty morsel of breakneck adventure tempered with a powerful evocation of family bonds and inner conflicts, while in parallel an enigmatic outside observer with motives of his own lurks around the corner, setting the scene for future developments for the next writers in the series to follow up on.
Michael Rutger/THE ANOMALY (Bonnier Zaffre)
A claustrophobic thriller following the misadventures of a group of documentary filmmakers exploring a set of hitherto unexplored caves in the heart of Death Valley, this is not quite the debut it appears to be. In fact Michael Rutger is actually the British but US-based author Michael Marshall Smith (who has also written as Michael Marshall). Never less than a compelling page-turner, this clever blend of the X-FILES, BLAIR WITCH and many an archeology conspiracy thriller in the vein of Dan Brown, eventually dovetails into Marshall Smith’s own universe of decades-old secret societies which he brought to the fore with the wonderful STRAW MEN. It’s also, unfortunately, the sort of book where giving away too much of the actual plot would act as a severe plot spoiler, so allow yourself to be swept along the author’s devilishly clever and micro-engineered set of revelations, twists and underground adventures. At any rate, few readers of THE ANOMALY will ever wish to explore a cave ever again, and that is a testament to its creepy, insidious power.
Richard Anderson/RETRIBUTION (Scribe)
Both an Australian contemporary western and a crime novel, this powerful novel has thrills and emotions to spare. Set in the desolate Antipodean Outback, this tale of forlorn lives, harsh landscape and blurred morals, follows the path of farmer whose main activity principally involves him stealing cattle and selling them on; alongside, Graeme Sweetapple also works on a local farm, tending horses and teaching the ex-politician wife of a mining magnate to ride. When on an illegal drive sheperding stolen steers he comes across an upended vehicle, he is drawn into a shady world where horses, water and cattle are the only commodity. The disappearance of Retribution, a legendary horse of great value, rural greed, compromised souls, the evocation of dust and heat all come together for a tense tale of human emotions at their rawest. A genuine discovery and a unique voice.
GANGSTERLAND, the opening volume in Goldberg’s teeming crime saga, appeared a few years back from another publisher and, undeservedly, made little impression, which was a great pity as his bustling tales of the heyday of American crime, Chicago gangsters, Vegas shenanigans, evoked a seedy atmosphere that even Hollywood has seldom been able to replicate in full, with only James Ellroy giving us a sense of its larger than life reality. Sal Cupertine, a Chicago mobster on the run, has now become Las Vegas Rabbi David Cohen where his church proves a perfect place to make bodies disappear. But he wants out. Alongside, a determined ex FBI agent now running security for a casino in Milwaukee, soon crosses his path and the fuse is set for an explosive tale of crime, corruption, dark doings and hopeless futures, a veritable X-ray of American society seen through a dark lens. It’s also a hypnotic and tense read which never lets go and, hopefully, this time around Goldberg’s edifying tales of mob, money and power will not go unnoticed again.