This month’s offerings couldn’t prove more diverse, ranging from a witty and devilishly clever Sherlock Holmes tale, which is anything but a pastiche and will have Sherlockians everywhere chuckling away in their deerstalkers, to the desolate sands of Mars with a locked room mystery for the 21st century. Elsewhere we roam the mean streets of Dublin, cruise the hotspots of the Mediterranean with the deadly Judith Rashleigh of MAESTRA infamy, smile along with a Norwegian Candide in upstate New York and its forests and lakes, patrol the dangerous streets of Oakland in California and reacquaint ourselves with Ngaio Marsh’s urbane Roderick Alleyn on assignment in New Zealand. Add a version of Macbeth with blood and guts and Scandi noir verve, the return of some favourite thriller authors and some interesting debuts and our menu has something for everyone.
BOOK OF THE MONTH: Gordon McAlpine/HOLMES ENTANGLED (Seventh Street Books) For lovers of bibliophilia and meta fiction, this is a godsend. McAlpine made a mark with the witty and ingenious WOMAN WITH THE BLUE PENCIL, a novelistic conundrum where the book almost wrote itself as you read it, and followed up with the no less challenging and fun HAMMETT UNWRITTEN which offered a striking variation on the man, the writer and his books. It was therefore inevitable that Sherlock Holmes would eventually come under his forensic microscope and this he does with panache, although the involvement of famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Conan Doyle himself as a character and Edgar Allen Poe’s Chevalier Auguste Dupin and, along for the ride, Watson and his wife are most pleasant and often quite unexpected surprises. The discovery of a strange manuscript in a Buenos Aires library, some mighty curious paranormal seances and their perpetrator a mysterious but beautiful woman, and Sherlock living incognito after his retirement from the Great Game as a German academic in Cambridge set a wonderfully labyrinthine plot in motion and it grips from end to end. Imaginative and so much fun.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: L.S. Hilton/ULTIMA (Bonnier Zaffre) The outrageous adventures of art expert, female serial killer (but only for a reason) and femme fatale extraordinaire Judith Rashleigh come to a suitable if amoral ending in the final volume of the trilogy that began with MAESTRA and was followed by DOMINA. Crisscrossing the Mediterranean, leaving a trail of mayhem, deception and panting men, Judith is now at the heart of yet another art forgery conspiracy that brings all the random threads peppering the trilogy finally together. A terribly guilty pleasure of a read and incredible fun if you leave your credulity at the door (alongside your clothes). Hilton writes like a dream and has a strong feel for the smells and tastes of exotic places, alongside her heroine’s expensive tastes, erotic exploits and wonderfully unprincipled actions. It’s as if Patricia Highsmith’s ambiguous Mr Ripley had been given a change of sex and actually found transgression a joy. Not for the faint-hearted.
Cormac O’Keeffe/BLACK WATER (Black and White) Dublin Noir at its most raw and dangerously violent. Unloved and forgotten kids roaming the slum areas of the Irish capital are drawn into gangs and into working for drug lords. The main character, 10-year old Jig, is one such lost soul, his only love his dog Bowie, and a talent for football encouraged by kindly coach Shay. When gang maven Ghost makes him feel important, he is drawn into a life of first petty, then serious crime. A woman who owes money to Ghost is sent a message via Jig but ends up dead, which brings Guardia cop Tara Crowe on the scene as Ghost’s nemesis. Innocents suffer, deaths occur and a pall of despair envelops the proceedings. But Shay, unlike his gangster brother Maggot, harbours dreams of escape. Not all will end well. A sad paean to Dublin’s Grand Canal and its drifters and lawless denizens, this is a book with a strong sense of empathy for the dispossessed and not a cheerful one, but a solid achievement in reflecting real life in fiction.
Peter Swanson/ALL THE BEAUTIFUL LIES (Faber & Faber) With every successive book, Peter Swanson is taking a firm grip on the psychological thriller throne (male category) and his new novel is as fascinating and cunningly plotted as any he has done previously, with just that perfect proportion of naive and well-intentioned characters being plunged into cauldrons of deceit and lies. When his father dies in troubling, sudden circumstances, graduate student Harry Ackerman returns home to be faced by the ambiguous attentions of Alice, his beautiful stepmother and both his heart and mind are thrown into uncertainty as suspicions run deep, alongside an unhealthy form of attraction. As ever nothing seems as it appears and Swanson turns the screw with ingenious artistry. And then there is younger Grace whose connections to his father and Alice is far from straightforward. The web of complications twists and turns with every new chapter until the whole plot feels as tight as a vice and ready to explode, at which time the author finds yet more complications to add to the mix. First-rate suspense.
Jo Nesbo/MACBETH (Hogarth Press) The Hogarth series updating famous Shakespeare plays for the new millennium for the first time heads into criminal waters, with bestselling Norwegian thriller writer Nesbo tackling the infamous Scottish play and following in the steps of Howard Jacobson, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, Jeanette Winterson and other establishment authors. The eponymous character has now become a police inspector with a troubled past as a drug addict, a companion called Lady and the expected crowd of Duff, Duncan, Banquo and others in contemporary and criminal roles one would least expect them in. Set in the 1970s, the tale has now become a story of gang rivalry and police corruption full of violence, much moral ambivalence, betrayal and madness. The general plot of the play is retained but the variations Nesbo plays with prove surprisingly effective and clever and raise the tone of the novel to bloody Shakespearean altitudes without forcing the analogies on the reader. A fascinating curiosity and a job well done.
Derek B. Miller/AMERICAN BY DAY (Doubleday) A follow-up to Miller’s award-winning NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT, which won the CWA John Creasey Fresh Blood Award for best first novel, sees a minor character from the initial volume return in this often savagely humorous take on the foreigner abroad. A Norwegian female cop travels to America to investigate the disappearance of her academic brother and his possible involvement in the unsolved murder of his lover, a black professor. At odds with the local sheriff in upstate New York, a wonderful creation of a character, sporting cowboy boots but with a degree in theology in his past, they somehow manage to work as a team even when double-crossing or out-thinking each other on a regular basis. She has a bruised past while the American cop looks like a yokel but is also a fine investigator, and Miller draws in a whole gallery of wonderful characters to treat the problem of race relations in the USA with acumen and insight. A delightful piece of entertainment with a subtle message and endearing characters.
Kent Anderson/GREEN SUN (Mulholland Books) Anderson is a major force on the American hardboiled front, with powerful, literary novels like NIGHT SOLDIERS and SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL evoking the nightmare of the Vietnam war and how it impacted on US culture and mindset. This, his first novel in almost 20 years, is in appearance partly autobiographical and, although episodic in nature, carries a mighty impact. Hanson is a cop with a background in the war, but also a scholar who can’t find resolution in academic pursuits and has instead become a cop, first in Portland and then in Oakland, where he now counts the days to an easier life on the beat, dodging violence when he can and confronting all the ills of a multicultural society at war with itself. The fact that Anderson’s personal CV is on the whole similar adds credence and life to these colourful stories of the mean streets, drug dealers, killer cops and such that he relates, as he functions more as a social worker than a policeman. A fascinating dip into the reality of ghetto violence which we sadly know about through the press but with an added useful antidote of humanity.
Stephanie Marland/MY LITTLE EYE (Trapeze) Not quite the debut it purports to be as the British author has already written two fast-paced Lee Child-influenced American-set action thrillers featuring bounty hunter Lori Anderson as Steph Broadribb, and the change of moniker is I reckon purely due to her switching sub-genres and moving here into the psychological thriller niche, with the first in a series featuring Starke and Bell, a combo of troubled cop and amateur sleuthette with a hidden past. A serial killer known as ‘the Lover’ is at large, his latest victim found in her bedroom framed by rose petals. A group of true crime enthusiasts with ulterior motives is keen to unmask the culprit before the police does and Clementine Bell infiltrates them with a view to being a step ahead in the investigation. But the main characters are unaware that they are being watched and one of them is being targeted as the next potential victim. Twisting and turning and with fair few surprises in store up the author’s sleeve make this thriller a creepy ride along dark roads and a promising initial instalment in what could become a highly successful series.
Ngaio Marsh & Stella Duffy/MONEY IN THE MORGUE (Collins Crime Club) Stella Duffy was brought up in New Zealand which certainly gave her an affinity to complete an unfinished Ngaio Marsh novel featuring Roderick Alleyn which Marsh had begun during WW2, although not obviously so but she has made a sterling job of it, catching just the right tone and atmosphere of the original books and their quirky attitudes to society and characters right out of the Golden Age of crime writing. Principally set in Mount Seager, a New Zealand hospital, this is essentially a traditional locked room mystery when a group of quarantined soldiers and an assortment of seemingly random strangers and patients are isolated during a storm and a flood, and death makes an unwelcome appearance in addition to money disappearing from a safe. With hardy Alleyn on the scene, all the action takes place on a single night as prescribed by Marsh who contributed the opening three chapters. Twisty, ingenious, a loving nod to old-fashioned sleuthing and characterisation, this is an unexpected winner.
S.J. Morden/ ONE WAY (Gollancz) The talented SF author Simon Morden now hides behind his initials (no doubt as requested by his publisher) with a book which turns out to be in a radically different vein to his previous high octane cyberpunk adventures or dark fantasy efforts. With his real-life scientific background, he is ideally placed to pen a heavily science-based thriller in the now commercial sub-genre made popular by Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN and ARTEMIS. A group of no hope lifer convicts are sent to Mars to set up a space station in advance of colonisation by more reputable staff, only to find themselves knocked off one at a time for reasons unknown in suspicious circumstances. And just like in an Agatha Christie novel, the killer can, in this hostile and closed environment, only be one of them. Twists and a series of betrayals abound along with much technical rigour and a strong touch of irony, making this a great, involving read with a wry appreciation of the likely twisted corporate politics of the future and associated greed. A new generation blooms for the whodunit.