A wonderfully diverse month of new titles, ranging from psychological thrillers, science fiction adventures and variations on Sherlock Holmes, world-ranging existential endeavours, investigations set in London, Sweden, New York, Berlin (twice, albeit in different periods), Paris, Rome, Ankara and Istanbul and places beyond, with much in the way of powerful, positive female characters alongside the customary troubled cops and investigators. Not one book is alike, and all are worth a serious detour.
BOOK OF THE MONTH Jack Grimwood/NIGHTFALL BERLIN (Michael Joseph) Grimwood introduced British intelligence officer and erstwhile diplomat Major Tom Fox in the impressive MOSKVA. The complex but fascinating character returns for a second outing. It’s now 1986 in the final years of the Cold War and he is despatched undercover to East Berlin to facilitate the flight of a local defector only to find that his mission was heavily compromised from the outset. Grimwood catches the mood of the time, the atmosphere and greyness of Berlin with acute perception and the plot is cleverly engineered to ratch up the tension all along, as Fox struggles to reconcile the levels of betrayal working against him while juggling with his own family problems back home. Edgy, suspenseful and with a particular knack for engaging the reader and bringing out his sympathy for the characters fighting it out on both sides of the dreaded Wall, this has echoes of Le Carre but with an added injection of humanity that provides an extra dimension and makes the tale and its protagonists even better for it. Already looking forward to the third instalment and where Grimwood might situate it!
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Sam Peters/FROM DISTANT STARS (Gollancz) Peter’s debut FROM DISTANT SKIES was a stunning revelation, bringing all the fascinating intricacies of cyberpunk and sense of wonder of science fiction to a tightly plotted thriller with a tragic love story at its heart. This sequel tightens the narrative vice with Inspector Keon now getting nearer to the truth (and motives) behind the death of his wife Alysha in a terrorist attack some five years earlier and also whether she was a traitor or not. But this time, his recreation of her as an artificial intelligence, Liss, is reluctant to come to his assistance, adding layers of mystery to the investigation which begins with an unexplained killing in a high security hospital and involving the discovery of a sought-after alien artefact under the ice of the planet’s north pole. There are conspiracies galore at play and layers to unpeel as he painstakingly makes his way through the lies and deceptions. It might all take place in the future and be set on alien worlds, but this is undoubtedly a first-class thriller, with a marked difference.
Sarah Pinborough/CROSS HER HEART (HarperCollins) Pinborough follows up her outstanding twist in the tale novel BEHIND HER EYES with another mighty, breathless suspenser that keeps the pulse racing from the outset and never lets go. Happily the twists involved on this occasion are less head-scratching and actually hasten the novel’s breakneck pace. With an assortment of wonderfully-sketched deeply-flawed female characters sharing the limelight, we can’t keep our eyes away from the intrigue involving Lisa, a mother with a sketchy past, her daughter Ava and Lisa’s work colleague Marilyn, who quickly turns out to be anything but a friend. Pinborough has a talent for making her protagonists real, full of doubts, secrets and troubled feelings and she develops her tale with a jeweller’s precision, notching up the betrayals and revelations one inch at a time, keeping the reader ever on the hook. No what-the-fuck final twist on this occasion, but a cocktail of emotions that will remain with you for a long time.
DeSales Harrison/THE WATERS AND THE WILD (Point Blank) A strongly evocative American debut, THE WATERS AND THE WILD charts literary and poetic shores to quite but powerful effect. Daniel Abend, a New York psychoanalyst with a complicated past is encouraged by the success of his therapy with patient Jessica Burke to make serious changes to his life. Following her unexpected suicide, he receives a mysterious mail that sets a question mark against her death. When his own daughter Clementine vanishes, clues in his past might provide an answer. Later, following Abend’s death, his daughter comes to the fore of the story and slowly, almost ceremoniously, with a priest in curious attendance, she unfolds the web of past secrets and questions, some of which hark back to her father’s early days in Paris and the problems with his marriage. A complex and multi-layered psychological thriller, imbued with humanity, with some lush writing, this is a slow burn tale that provides much in the way of rewards if you stick to its studied pace.
Sandrone Dazieri/KILL THE ANGEL (Simon & Schuster) Italian leading thriller author Dazieri introduced Rome Deputy Commissioner Colomba Caselli in his first translated novel KILL THE FATHER, which proved memorable what with its clever mix of shocks, local colour and obstinate sleuthing by Caselli and sidekick Dante Torre. Their new outing begins with the arrival in the Termini station of the high-speed train from Milan and the discovery of a carriage full of dead bodies. Is it an Islamic attack or is that just a smokescreen for something even more ominous? Dazieri’s powerful and devious imagination has a strong knack for creating most disturbing and memorable serial killers and what he comes up with in KILL THE ANGEL is equally creative, if worrisome. Macabre, page-turning action and beautifully-sketched characters and their relationships, what with Colomba’s PTSD and Dante’s unrevealed past, this is a high octane thriller that will not disappoint.
Volker Kutscher/GOLDSTEIN (Sandstone Press) The initial two volumes in Kutscher’s Gereon Rath series, set in Berlin between the wars introduced two wonderful characters, imperfect cop Gereon and his would-be paramour police stenographer Charlotte Ritter. The adaptation of the first volume as the Sky TV series BABYLON BERLIN was, in my opinion, a triumph, even if Charlotte’s role in it was very different indeed from the books. It’s now 1929, and the rise of Nazism lurks in the background, and notorious American gangster Abraham Goldstein is in town, staying at the Hotel Excelsior with Rath assigned to his surveillance when he would much rather be fighting crime on other fronts. Meanwhile, Charlotte lets a woman escape following an interrogation and their cases soon become connected. The evocation of Weimar Berlin is splendid and chilling in view of what we know historically followed, and the prickly relationship between Gereon and Charly moves as ever one step forward and one backwards in a fascinating form of hesitation waltz. So little German crime fiction has been translated but this surely must be at the top of the pile, and I am eager for the next three instalments to be published in English; the sooner the better. This is as good Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.
Johana Gustawsson/KEEPER (Orenda) Unintentional detective duo Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Mounted Police and Alexis Castells, a French true crime writer are on the case again, this time involving Gustawsson’s trademark blend of present day investigation set in London and Sweden linked with mysteries of the past whose influence on matters is slowly revealed, not without a handful of unpredictable twists. We learn more about the pasts of the two protagonists as they follow an awkward trail of copy cat murders in London and Falkenberg, involving the disappearance of a British actress and a curious link to the East End of Jack the Ripper days (one of whose victims was historically Swedish in fact). Add some fascinating new characters and a web of poisonous relationships and family secrets and Gustawsson has pulled off her tightrope act of meticulous sleuthing and explicit shocks yet again and makes it all look so easy. (Disclaimer: I translated this book from the original French for its publisher).
Santiago Gamboa/RETURN TO THE DARK VALLEY (Europa) One could argue this massive novel is not strictly speaking a genre title, even though one its central premises is an act of revenge nurtured for years against a drug trafficker guilty of unmentionable crimes, but it is also a powerful example of what one could term ‘existential noir’. Gamboa returns to the topsy-turvy and dangerous world of NIGHT PRAYERS and brings back two of its more enigmatic characters, The Consul and Juana whose unrequited love story forms a background to a tale of religious fanaticism, terrorism, pain, the redemption of poetry and transcendence. This is South American writing at its most visionary and packs a mean punch, alongside action that spans the globe. Heavyweight both physically and metaphorically, in the footsteps of Roberto Bolano, but a rewarding if at times heavily digressive prose that seduces, shocks and takes the reader on a unique journey, featuring a gallery of larger than life characters from all walks of life in all their splendour and fallibilities. Treat yourself.
Aliette De Bodard/THE TEA MASTER AND THE DETECTIVE (Subterranean Press) A fascinating novella by a French-Vietnamese Paris-based science fiction author who lives in Paris but writes in English and is fast becoming one of the news stars of the genre, garnering awards and nominations in her wake. And no doubt, this slim but indispensable book will add to her laurels. Daringly, she has managed to create an invaluable new iteration to the Sherlock Holmes canon, with a tale of the far future with daring imagination that follows all the rules and traditions of Conan Doyle’s ‘great game’, with Long Chau, a tea-brewing consulting detective allied with an organic mind ship, the Shadow’s Child, in place of Watson, to solve an impossible and improbable death in an asteroid belt with a strongly Pan-Asian Culture. With a clever nod to A STUDY IN SCARLET, this is challenging and huge fun. The hardcover is a limited edition and a bit pricey, but there is a cheaper e-book available.
August Thomas/LIAR’S CANDLE (Simon & Schuster) Not enough spy thrillers feature leading female characters, so August Thomas (a woman despite the name) must be applauded for her first novel featuring diplomatic intern Penny Kessler, in a series debut. The book is set in Ankara in Turkey where the US Embassy has been bombed by terrorists and survivor Penny finds herself a pawn between the CIA, whose own role in the events is troubling, the Turkish authorities and their dictatorial leaders, and a handful of terrorists of different inclinations. The set-up is clever and well-done and presages much in the way of intrigue, betrayal and eventual explanations and Penny herself has great potential as a character. The breathless second half of the novel sadly doesn’t quite pull it off, turning into a naive girl’s own adventure which sometimes stretches the imagination with an overdose of derring-so. Hopefully Penny will grow up in the next book and fullfill her promise.