Summer inevitably comes to an end, but the heat is still on in many of this month’s reading choices, which take us to a fascinating world that allegedly lies beyond the doors of death, London under the Blitz, the Lybian desert, the fleshpots of Italy, the French Riviera and Bora Bora, downtown Toronto, small-town Florida, Victorian Edinburgh and the teeming London suburb of Southall, alongside characters heroic, flawed, courageous and dangerous but not always the sort of people you’d like to come across in a dark alley. But then, if you’re into crime and thrillers, you know that already, don’t you?
BOOK OF THE MONTH
Anthony Quinn/OUR FRIENDS IN BERLIN (Jonathan Cape)
Erstwhile film critic Quinn has been edgily skirting the edges of genre for several books now and has a strong knack for period, and this venture into espionage, set during the Blitz in London, involving the edgy cat and mouse games between British counter-intelligence and a cell of Nazi sympathisers and spies unfolds with all the precision of a well-engineered machine. With a wonderfully-balanced female heroine – one of Quinn’s skills is a warts and all evocation of female characters in all his books- as well as a curiously ambiguous male protagonist whose alliances are worryingly unclear for much of the novel, this is an involving tale which rings strongly of truth wherever the plot takes refuge, whether in smoky wartime pubs, in the rubble of the devastating German bombing or the melancholy atmosphere of London under siege. Twisty, involving, and with a set of characters each of which stands out in complexity and realism, this is an outstanding addition to the spy genre, and rivals Ambler and Le Carre at their best in emotional strength.
Chloe Esposito/BAD (Michael Joseph)
The opening volume in Esposito’s Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know trilogy introduced us to naughty but nice Alvie, a British vamp with a talent for deception, naked ambition (with an emphasis on the ‘naked’), sexual manipulation, murder and skullduggery and was one of my guiltiest pleasures of last year. The sequel moves Alvie on and snatches her from the jaws of death and destitution through a romp across the riches of Europe in which no character ever tells the truth, scattering yet another trail of bodies in her wake, some deliberate and others involuntary. As a heroine, Alvie, who somehow disposed of her own twin sister in the earlier volume and bedded almost every man who crossed her path, is a profane, hilarious heroine with a sardonic voice which is one of the great delights of the series. Shocking, as if Highsmith’s dangerous Mister Ripley was female, both naive and manipulative, a man-eater of the highest order and a hit-woman with no morals whatsoever. One to thoroughly enjoy.
Hannu Rajaniemi/SUMMERLAND (Gollancz)
English-writing Finnish science fiction author (and prominent real-life scientist) Rajaniemi is, of all things, an ‘ideas man’ and the veritable plethora of challenging and ever-imaginative concepts from his earlier space opera books is here transplanted into a curious parallel world where the British Empire has colonised the afterworld and is now at daggers drawn with Russia at the time of the Spanish Civil War. With spies both dead and alive, the struggle falls to a lowly female spy in our world of the living to unmask a dead mole in Summerland, the domain of the dead, which can only be reached through the ether or mediums, whose conflicted activities threaten the sheer fabric of the world. With its confusing use of true events and characters -although Hitler and Germany are surprisingly kept out of the equation- this is Victoriana steampunk taken forward in time, blended with gender politics, non-stop action (and pistols at dawn duels) and a surprising sense of fun. Rather unique.
Michael Redhill/BELLEVUE SQUARE (No Exit Press)
Jean, a married bookseller in Toronto finds out she has a doppelganger, when some of her customers insist they have seen her in Bellevue Square, an area of the city she hadn’t previously set foot in. When she embarks on her investigation into the colourful, Bohemian square and its thriving food and crafts market, the striking characters she encounters and befriends in her attempt to locate her doppelganger only deepen the mystery, Both a downbeat existential thriller and an examination of the sense of identity, this is at the same time a literary award-winning novel and a curious ghost story of sorts that blurs the concept of genre but keeps a tight rein on its plotting to create a deep sense of anxiety. Add to this the fact it’s beautifully written (the author is also known for his poetry) and you have a book with a marked difference and well worth the detour.
Charles Willeford/UNDERSTUDY FOR DEATH (Hard Case Crime)
The reprint of this 1961 forgotten novel by Hoke Moseley creator, the late Charles Willeford, is reason to rejoice, as it hadn’t been reissued since and was very much something of a sought-after collectors’ item, having been originally published as a softcore sex exploitation paperback original. Decidedly ultra noir in psychological essence, it’s the tale of a small town journalist who undertakes to investigate the case of a wealthy suburban housewife who, for no apparent reason, murdered her two young children before shooting herself. The story only serves to highlight his own emotional desolation and the emptiness of his life, notwithstanding his fractured relationship with his own, beautiful but somewhat vacant wife. As with much of Willeford, this is a steady descent into private hells and carries a mean punch, even if the genre element is subdued and mostly restricted to the anecdotal crime. Visceral, affecting, an unflinching X-Ray of dead souls struggling in a desert of their own making.
Ambrose Parry/THE WAY OF ALL FLESH (Canongate)
The debut bow in a series by hard-hitting and often humorous Scottish crime writer Christopher Brookmyre writing in collaboration with his wife, anesthaetist Marina Haetzman takes the reader back to 19th century Edinburgh, a city divided by poverty and wealth. Will Raven becomes apprentice to obstetrician Doctor Simpson as a prostitute friend is murdered. Bound to investigate the fatality he allies himself with maid Sarah Fisher for an involving and dangerous journey through the dark side of Victorian medical practice. Atmospheric, colourful and fast-paced, the serpentine plot skirts all manners of darkness, social and religiously-inspired and is strongly grounded in historical fact, medical lore and derring do as it paints a harrowing picture of old Scotland in all its moral complexity. Roll on, Will and Sarah’s next outing.
Amer Anwar/BROTHERS IN BLOOD (Dialogue)
This scintillating debut by a winner of the CWA’s Debut Dagger introduces Zaq Khan, a British Asian protagonist from Southall’s Little India with grit and determination to spare and a welcome newcomer to the steadily growing ranks of ethnic characters in British crime fiction, alongside his creator. An ex-con, once jailed for manslaughter, now working at a builder’s yard, he is called upon to locate his Sikh boss’s runaway daughter as an alternative to returning to jail, determining quickly that she is possibly fleeing an arranged marriage, albeit with an unwelcome Muslim suitor. With a wide-ranging examination of the melting pot of British Asian cultures and customs, this fully original involuntary private detective tale sounds a refreshing note, while keeping to the violent traditions of the genre and carries the ring of truth. Originally published as WESTERN FRINGES by a small press, this indispensible rollercoaster of a read is now more widely available through a major publishing house.
Catherine Steadman/SOMETHING IN THE WATER (Simon & Schuster)
Knowing this debut novel was penned by a DOWNTON ABBEY actress and was, furthermore, part of the domestic species of the psychological thriller, was anything but an attraction. But the plotting and twists galore it offers soon got the better of my reservations. Whilst on honeymoon in Bora Bora, a financially-challenged couple, respectively a documentary filmmaker and an investment banker with moveable morals stumble upon a mysterious bag in the ocean while scuba-diving. The choices they are faced with once they uncover the contents will quickly come as a test of both their relationship and their principles and the tale goes into rapid overdrive, dragging the reader along as he or she agrees or disagrees in turn with the protagonists’ often muddled and self-serving decisions. Add an unreliable narrator and there is much to be admired in what has become quite a major bestseller in the USA. I was quickly converted!
K.J. Howe/SKYJACK (Headline)
Kidnap and ransom negotiator Thea Paris made her debut in the fast-paced THE FREEDOM BROKER and her new adventure is similarly involving and a thriller of the first order. On her flight from Africa accompanying two adopted boys to their new home and country, their plane is hijacked and they land in the Lybian desert. Thea discovers a particular passenger appears to be the target and must bring all her skills to negotiating the release of the passengers. With various parties perilously involved in bringing the situation to a rapid ending, and with strong political implications brought to bear, Thea has to use not just her mental but also her fighting skills and turns out to be a particularly gutsy heroine with a nod to the Jack Reachers and Bournes of this world,. A page-turner which aims not just to entertain but also raises many questions, this is an assured thriller and confirmation of a new, striking talent.
Rob Sinclair/SLEEPER 13 (Orion)
A new series debut for a British author hitherto best known for his self-published action bestsellers. Aydin Torkal was ruthlessly groomed to be a Jihadi warrior in an Afghan camp where his fellow children are all known only as numbers. However, he conceals the fact that unlike his cohorts, he is not a believer in the cause. MI5 agent Rachel Cox is on the trail of the potentially lethal group and crosses his path when his resolve is tested by the murder of his twin sister. Both embark on a breathless race against time to prevent a series of terrible atrocities until their paths inevitably converge and every member of the terrorist group has to be tracked down, one at a time all over Europe. Timely, brutal in its determined realism, this has echoes of Terry Hayes’ I AM PILGRIM and doesn’t suffer in comparison and proves a compelling page turner with the power to disturb and worry any reader already addicted to contemporary news headlines.