Yet again a selection of titles that demonstrate with bravura the width and breadth of current mystery and thriller fiction worldwide, what with novels set not just in the present, the past and the future (and sometimes all of these periods within the same pages) but also developing in such varied settings as Delaware, Belgium, Manchester, Bogota, Cuba, Miami, the Mississippi Delta, London during the Blitz and now, Moscow and Washington where the ley lines of espionage converge and Brussels with a touch of rock’n’roll. What more can you ask for?
BOOK OF THE MONTH
Tom Sweterlitsch/THE GONE WORLD (Headline)
American writer Sweterlitsch’s debut novel TOMORROW AND TOMORROW was an audacious and gripping dystopian thriller and his new offering is equally compelling, a genuine page-turner of a read. Shannon Moss is a naval investigator in a world where time travel to parallel worlds has been successful (complex but realistic explanations provided in the book), albeit with many drawbacks and kept secret from the general public. However, a dreadful catastrophe still to occur in the future is rapidly nearing and appears to be intimately tied to the phenomenon of travel and might signify the end of mankind, so her current investigation is also becomes an anguished race against time. When she is assigned to the disappearance of the teenage daughter of a Navy Seal’s family who have been savagely murdered, she has to hop into the future to crack the case and is returned to the horrific scene of her own deepest secrets and fears. Multi-layered, intelligent, unrelenting, Shannon makes for a great heroine and her adventures in time and on planetary ground uncover levels after levels of sinister conspiracies. Disturbing, compelling and a great read by a major new voice in thrillers.
Robert Arellano/HAVANA LIBRE (Akashic)
The initial volume of this series by an American-Cuban author, HAVANA LUNAR, introduced selfless doctor Mano Rodriguez as he fought corruption and political and murderous plots in the Castro post-Bay of Pigs era, when shortages and poverty dominated the island. His erstwhile and manipulative nemesis Colonel Emilio Perez of the Security forces convinces him to visit Miami to get to the bottom of a plot where Cuban exiles are engaged in a terrorist bombing campaign on home soil, in which his own father might be involved. A much involuntary sleuth, Rodriguez muddles his way through the plot in a sympathetic way and, inevitably both messes matters up and eventually solves the case before a fearful attack takes place, but what the reader gets out of the book is a memorable portrait of Havana at its most colourful and a gallery of wonderful characters moving through a rainbow of human emotions and experiences at all levels of Cuban and Miami society. HAVANA LUNAR was nominated for the Edgar; its follow-up deserves a similar fate.
Michael Farris Smith/THE FIGHTER (No Exit Press)
Another superlative slice of dark Americana, Farris Smith’s follow up to DESPERATION ROAD, concentrates on the doomed journeys of Jack Boucher, once an unsettled orphan who has fallen on very bad times indeed. His beloved foster mother is dying of dementia, and his career as a bare knuckle fighter has taken an enormous toll on his body and brain. His compulsive gambling has left him badly in debt to murderous Big Momma Sweet and time is running out. As his options fast run out he crosses paths with big-hearted tattooed ex-stripper Annette who might turn out to be his saviour but will he first escape that final, rigged fight in which any further concussion or bodily damage might kill him outright? A novel that takes hold of your heart in a tight vice, THE FIGHTER set in the wildlands of the Mississippi Delta is also written with diamond-like care and has a visceral impact, although not always for the faint-hearted.
Melba Escobar/HOUSE OF BEAUTY (Fourth Estate)
A literary Colombian novel set in the uncommon setting of a beauty salon, HOUSE OF BEAUTY is a genuine revelation. Karen has come to the metropolis of Bogota, away from the country, where she has had to leave her son with her mother while she earns enough to afford decent accommodation and to bring him to the city. When Sabrina Gusman, a young woman of problematic background, is found dead, many of the strands of the investigation lead to the salon where she was a customer prior to her disappearance. Peopled by wonderful female characters, Karen’s co-workers, the owner of the salon, and animated by the effervescence of a city where poverty and money coexist uncomfortably and women are always prey or sexual fodder, whether voluntarily or otherwise, this is a rewarding read and an unexpected insight into a foreign society not often documented in novels. Treat yourself.
Cathi Unsworth/THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC (Serpent’s Tail)
Unsworth, the unrivalled chronicler and expert of the defunct world of London, Soho and Sohemians, is fascinated by the recent past and the way in which the Britain in which she grew up still holds sway on our present. Her new opus is an involving thriller set in wartime Briton and based on the real case of the Hadley Woods Murder of 1943 when the body of a woman with cloth stuffed inside her mouth was found by boys playing there. Add to the potent mysterious cocktail the case of a spiritualist medium whose messages from the other side curiously contain classified war material, which brings Ross Spooner, a troubled undercover policeman into the case. Add to the mix a German spy parachuted into England with tall tales about a charismatic musical artist and you have a cleverly multi-threaded plot that dazes, what with hints of witchcraft, wartime intrigue and a full on depiction of wartime London and the Blitz. Another winner for the rather unique Unsworth.
Joseph Knox/THE SMILING MAN (Doubleday)
Knox’s much-acclaimed debut SIRENS introduced us to maverick Manchester cop Aidan Waits. The hapless police officer is yet again in much trouble on his second fictional appearance, stuck on the night shift with a dubious, vulgar to the max partner. Called to a city centre abandoned hotel they come across the body of a man with an uncommon smile who cannot be identified. Although warned off from working on the case, Aidan is soon drawn into an almost private investigation, uncovering layer after layer of deceit involving female students on the skids, trash journalists, local politicians, and a rich family with secrets by the dozen. Waits is a flawed but fascinating protagonist with a curious sense of honour coexisting alongside his own moral corruption and following in his footsteps takes you on a particularly dark urban journey which can prove equally rewarding and depressing as he unveils the sad truths about our contemporary society. British noir at its best.
Jason Matthews/THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE (Michael Joseph)
Long before the release of RED SPARROW, the Jennifer Lawrence-starring movie based on the first novel of the Dominika Egorova adventures, the series which this volume concludes was always for me a guilty pleasure: fascinating in its sinuous espionage plots, cannily prurient, preposterous at times in its characterisation and downright annoying in Matthews’s insistence on peppering the books with a needless recipe at the end of each chapter, but nonetheless breathless must reads! Russian double-agent and ex-ballerina Dominika has now made her way to the top of the Russian security apparatus pole and become an invaluable asset to the CIA, where her lover Nat languishes and pines for her, which doesn’t stop him (and her) from bedding others at will. But a Kremlin mole is getting dangerously close to a position of awesome power in the USA and only Dominika can unmask the traitor, even if it means sleeping with Putin himself! Thrills are a-plenty but credibility is left at the door although you still can’t put the book down.
Daniel Cole/HANGMAN (Trapeze)
Cole’s strong debut RAGDOLL was deservedly shortlisted for a CWA Dagger and offered us cop William Fawkes, a nicely nuanced troubled sleuthing character. Sadly, after the events of the first book, Fawkes is now on the run and not directly involved in most of the new book where erstwhile members of his Scotland Yard team are called on to investigate a series of gruesome murders taking place simultaneously both in New York and London. Paired with Elliot Curtis of the FBI and the ambiguous Damien Rouche of the CIA, DCI Emily Baxter is drawn to the mutilated bodies and the ominous but unknowable messages carved on them, sensing they are on the trail of something even bigger, with time running out. Fast-paced, breathless at times, although on occasion a tad unbelievable and littered with too many red herrings, this is nonetheless a strong read and a serial killer novel with a notable difference from the run of the mill slashers normally associated with the genre.
Paul Colize/BACK UP (Point Blank)
Since the death of Georges Simenon, crime novels by Belgian writers have been few and far between in translation. Delightfully enough, at any rate for this particular reviewer, it’s also a book about the life, times and spirit of rock’n’roll in the 1960s and 1970s and it gets every note right. In Berlin in 1967 four members of British rock group die at the same time in different locations but the police come to the conclusion it is a pure coincidence. Forward to 2010 when a homeless man is hit by a car in front of Brussels’ main railway station, left with lock-in syndrome and, surprisingly the case is blown open again. An Irish journalist investigates and the true story is gradually revealed through a diversity of voices as all the pieces come intriguingly together in an impeccable tale of posthumous detection encompassing a loving look into the minutiae of rock and the atmosphere and background of some of its golden years. Add to that an exemplary mystery plot and you have a potent combination.
Laura Lippman/SUNBURN (Faber & Faber)
With a female heroine to kill for, elegant, cleverly wanton, deceitful, feisty and more, Laura Lippman subverts with much brio the tropes of the James M. Cain femme fatale model of noir. Redhead Polly has abandoned a spineless husband and child behind and taken refuge in a Delaware small town where she has found a job as a waitress at the rundown High-Ho diner where she meets Adam, seemingly a seductive drifter, and later a master cook, with whom she falls into a relationship. But both are harbouring a ton of secrets which could explode the couple if either of them ever came to tell a portion of the truth, and when the respective revelations do arrive, they are certainly full of twists and surprises as the their pasts catch up with them with a vengeance. A deft, serpentine plot, an assured voice, this is first division American crime writing at its most robust.