No seasonal cheer or cozy Christmas tales of gentle mayhem in any of this month’s selection of titles, I fear. Instead we have a menu that overflows with puzzles, brainteasers, violence and much explicitness as our two handfuls of authors surf the zeitgeist moving from an African state quite unlike any you will have seen before, Melbourne, a haunted Sussex school, crimes on the London Underground, Cape Town, California during the Great Depression, the multi-ethnic London suburbs and a fractured Europe in what could well be the reality of the post-Brexit world with an assortment ranging from amateur and official sleuths, pulp writers with a knack for trouble, spies, conmen and all the worst that humanity that can offer. At any rate, they will all keep your blood boiling and keep you warm.
BOOK OF THE MONTH Lavie Tidhar/UNHOLY LAND (Tachyon) Already praised in a variety of places as one of the books of the year, Tidhar’s new novel is a thought-provoking spin on the concept first introduced by Michael Chabon in the equally challenging THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION of a world where an alternative Jewish state to Israel has been founded. However, his deep fascination for the what if’s of history is given an extra speculative dimension as his apocryphal Jewish pulp author exiled in Berlin Lior Tirosh gets trapped in a veritable hall of mirrors, taking the concept of China Mieville THE CITY AND THE CITY to a whole new level, with the new homeland based in East Africa where he has to return to investigate the disappearance of his activist niece just like a character in one of his own books, a shimmering mirage in which reality is questioned on every street and Lake corner. But is the land of Palestina the one where he actually grew up or the product of someone else’s imagination as levels of perception change alongside clever and challenging parallels to current political realities? A novel which can be read on all sorts of levels, each as rewarding as each other, whether as sheer entertainment or serious speculation, making Tidhar a rather unique writer who seldom comes up with the expected and for whom each book is a challenge to the imagination. This is damn good (as was his A MAN LIES DREAMING, which flirted with the dangerous premise of an alternative reality Hitler as both sleuth and second class author…). A must.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Oakley Hall/SO MANY DOORS (Hard Case Crime) A welcome reissue of a sixty year old forgotten pulp novel by the author of WARLOCK and other literary oddities (including some Sherlock Holmes pastiches), this begins on death row and spins backwards to explain how the brutish protagonist arrived there. The book is set during the depression amongst the rough and ready world of Southern California ‘cat skinners’, the men who built the roads with their graders and bulldozers, icons of primeval strength and brutality. There are strong echoes of early Jim Thompson, whose doomed working class characters travelled the same mean bars, work places and desolate streets. The story unfolds of a passionate ‘amour fou’ liaison between a man and a young woman whose passion and taste for challenging convention and answering only the call of their desires, appetites and sexual yearning, notwithstanding a shocking age difference and a total lack of morality and loyalty to family or friends. Like a race in fifth gear towards fatality, the story unfolds with a sense of inexorability, even as you tentatively sympathise with the imperfect protagonists, Jack and Vassilia. Like a car crash in slow motion you can’t take your eyes away from. Strong stuff.
Kurrum Rahman/HOMEGROWN HERO (HQ) Rahman’s debut novel EAST OF HOUNSLOW was deservedly shortlisted for the CWA Creasey New Blood Dagger and introduced its hapless urban struggler Jay Quasim, torn between terrorism, his Muslim background and forced into becoming an informer. Both action-strewn and at times rather hilarious as it confronts a world all too familiar to us from newspaper headlines, the ‘adventures’ of this most reluctant hero continue with our characater now working in a call centre and attempting to leave behind his brief career as anti-jihadist informer to MI5. Bringing back a whole gallery of the first book’s colourful other characters, sleeper agent Imran in search of an ordinary life with his white girlfriend, aunt Khala and minor nemesis Silas is a welcome touch. When a new threat to the capital’s security emerges in the person of the mysterious Teacher, they are all reluctantly drawn back into the spying game and a madcap as well as worryingly realistic battle of wit and deception is launched which unfolds in fifth gear. A thriller you can relate to, far from Bond, Bourne and decidedly full of humanity.
John Marrs/HER LAST MOVE (Thomas & Mercer) A strong if at times slightly annoying serial killer London tale set in London by the author of THE ONE brings both original touches to the genre but also revels in many of the sub-genre’s clichés. DS Rebecca Vincent comes from the traditional mould of imperfect, troubled cops, failing in her duties as a single mother and seemingly on the wrong career trajectory, stumbles across the initial brutal killings of a similarly by-the-book serial killer whose murders all appear to have a connection which initially eludes her and her colleagues but slowly emerges as the plot develops. Joe Russell, a super-recognizer, a cop from a special unit specialising in facial recognition, is assigned to assist her and their relationship survives initial misunderstandings (he is gay and happily married). Brought together, they slowly assemble the pieces of the puzzle confronting them together even though they lose perspective of what might be the killer’s ultimate victim which Marrs unveils as a genuine shocker which turns the book upside down and confounds expectations. If the world needs more psychothrillers, this is a decent example with all the requisite twists and deviant pathology as well as an insight into an investigative area barely touched upon elsewhere to date. Will find its fans.
Dave Hutchinson/EUROPE AT DAWN (Solaris) A final fourth volume for what was initially a trilogy depicting a fractured Europe of the future with strong echoes of Brexit and some people’s initial assumptions about it, in which spies from all sides roamed the countries new and old in search of answers and personal victories, alongside the mysterious doings of a parallel world whose involvement in the mess is far from innocent. The series won major applause in SF circles but also was a splendid example of thrillers featuring ordinary people grappling with the absurdities of an evolving new world, not unlike Alan Furst with a speculative bent. This coda returns to the complex world Hutchinson has so cleverly conjured up like a vast jigsaw puzzle with its gallery of everymen and women, including cook and smuggler Rudi, Scottish embassy drudge Alice, the female commander of the forces protecting Heathrow and many others as the convergence of past and future, real world and parallel world entangles with a complex plot encompassing the UK, its dream separatist dimension, the Baltic states, Siberia and a variety of European new fiefdoms as the battle for present and future rages quietly. Fascinating and a major achievement.
Tim Willocks/MEMO FROM TURNER (Jonathan Cape) Is gentle giant Willocks the most under-appreciated crime writer we have in our country? He can turn his gaze on any subject and area and always come up with something both rough and transcendent and unlike anything any of his peers would write. From savage deep American South epics to oppressive prison yarns, notwithstanding fevered historical sagas about medieval times or the Crusades always expect the unexpected and this raw and bloody tale of corruption in South Africa proves another winner. A young drunken, rich Afrikaner kills a teenage street girl in Cape Town with his Range Rover with his passengers blindly drawing a veil on the crime. His mother, a ferocious mining magnate is determined he should get away with it, but then relentless warrant officer Turner of the homicide department has other ideas. The battle of wills between the two proves epic and bloody, immovable objects on a pattern of murderous collision, with private thugs and local police on the wrong side of the fence in the remote mining town Turner visits to confront the guilty parties. The landscape will inevitably end up strewn with corpses at the end but the journey is truly quite exhilarating.
Mike Hodges/BAIT, GRIST AND SECURITY (Unbound) Film director Hodges (GET CARTER, CROUPIER, I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD, PULP…) has always had a strong affinity for all forms of noir and the flotsam and jetsam of the criminal world. These three short novels now collected for the first time (Disclaimer: I was the original publisher of BAIT which was initially called WATCHING THE WHEELS COME OFF in my erstwhile MaxCrime imprint) are accordingly full of hapless losers, grifters, dreamers and all too human characters caught in a variety of spider’s webs often of their own making. Ranging from an off-season holiday resort where bad magicians are on the run, alongside dodgy PR consultants and a sinister American cult, to a bestselling writer who steals people’s lives to use in his books and soon becomes a prime candidate for murder and a Hollywood star playing prima donna up in his hotel room while a crime spree rages outside in the corridors, these are witty tales of mediocre people imprisoned in their fallibilities, tempered with sardonic humour and corruscating wit. Each story could have made a delightful movie but we should be glad they didn’t and Hodges kept them on the written page instead.
Sarah Bailey/INTO THE NIGHT (Corvus) Australian author Sarah Bailey introduced her character, troubled but brilliant once small town cop Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock in THE DARK LAKE. Her second outing now sees Gemma leaving husband, son and hometown behind and now working, and lonely and struggling with drinking and promiscuity, in the big city of Melbourne, where her new work partner DS Nick Sweet is both hostile to her and uncommunicative. When a promising young actor is killed on a crowded set in full public view, the duo must set their differences aside and investigate his life and death in a case with high public profile and the ensuing pressures from up high, while still looking into the earlier solitary death of a homeless man, which has resonated strongly with Gemma. In both cases, the answers appear to be with the victims’ past and family but is there a connection between the two crimes? Secrets and hidden motives float above both murders and the cases prove revelatory for both cops. Highly contemporary in the way the plot shadows recent societal events, this is a strong police procedural and cements Gemma Woodstock as a character to follow.
Will Carver/GOOD SAMARITANS (Orenda) While his wife sleeps peacefully upstairs, Seth Beauman, fighting his insomnia, spends much of his nights phoning people he has found in a telephone directory in a bid to establish some form of human contact. Elsewhere in the city Ant mans the Samaritan’s line in a bid to talk suicide candidates down. But one night the lines get crossed and Seth talks to troubled Hadley Serf who is strongly considering killing herself. When the mistake is revealed, Ant is troubled and decides to shadow Hadley, becoming at first a benevolent stalker. Soon we have a bleak landscape of dead bodies, the unholy use of bottles of bleach and all the sordid violence and graphic sex you could expect from your own dreams (or nightmares….) and so much worse. In this frantic read in sheer overdrive, Carver appeals to the worst voyeur in all of us and delivers the goods with a punch and a fiendish sense of pace and dark humour. I might actually go back and investigate his previous books, which I had not read. It’s my type of noir, although I’m aware not all share my dubious proclivities!
Elly Griffitths/THE STRANGER DIARIES (Quercus) Griffiths is best known for her award-winning nine previous novels all featuring archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway which have proven highly popular with the reading public. This, however, is a fascinating stand-alone and a marked departure from her usual fare and revives the gothic thriller genre with a quiet vengeance. Clare is a divorced English teacher at a Sussex comprehensive who runs a course on an obscure gothic writer. When one of her colleagues is found dead with a line from the gothic author in question left by her body, Clare suspects the killer might well be someone she knows and confides her suspicions and thoughts to a journal which runs throughout the novel; then one day she finds out someone else is also adding content to the diary behind her back. Add to the mystery the fact that the ghost of the dead writer’s wife is rumoured to be haunting the corridors of the school and the story unfolds in three voices: Clare, her daughter Georgia and the police officer in charge of the murder investigation, DS Harbinder Kaur. Never has the time been more right for a revival of the gothic thriller and Griffiths delivers with assurance.