Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Creative crime capers

As the rainy season begins, what better time to snuggle up with the latest crime fiction.

FOR most people in Britain, the 1960s didn’t swing at all. In 1968, the majority of us were more worried about the devalued pound in our pocket than whether we were getting enough free love and/or psychedelic drugs.

One group who wouldn’t swing if you hung ’em are the Marylebone CID in A Song From Dead Lips, the first novel from journalist William Shaw (Quercus).

This excellent procedural begins with the discovery of a strangled girl in St John’s Wood, near the famous Abbey Road Studios where Beatles fans camp out. DS Cathal Breen is in bad odour for deserting a colleague during an armed robbery and sidekick WPC Helen Tozer, the first woman in the unit apart from the secretary, finds herself treated with innuendo-laden hostility by her bewildered male colleagues. Racism, too, is endemic.

A gripping story, with two appealing protagonists and impeccably researched period detail well deployed throughout.

Better known for science fiction and fantasy, US author Elizabeth Hand also writes a mean thriller.


The protagonist of Available Dark (C&R Crime) is Cassandra Neary, first encountered in Hand’s 2007 novel Generation Loss. Neary is very much a middle-class girl gone wrong – one cult photography book during the punk era, followed by 30-odd years of booze- and drug-fuelled burnout.

Now in her 50s, and still happily hoovering up the crystal meth, she’s lured to Helsinki by a fan who wants her to authenticate some photographs he’s thinking of buying. There she meets Ilkka Kaltunnen, a fashion photographer who has graduated from snapping the half-starved to the actually dead, all arranged in postures based on a creepy Nordic folktale. When Kaltunnen and his assistant are found murdered, Neary flees to Iceland, where both her recent past and, in the form of an old lover, ancient history start to catch up with her.

With Neary’s wryly humorous narration, a virtual soundtrack of black metal and a cast of fans, fetishists and believers in ancient cults in a bleak and terrifying landscape, this is a dark, intense and genuinely edgy read.


It’s pretty nippy up in the Pyrenees, too, the setting for The Frozen Dead (Mulholland Books), the first novel from Bernard Minier (translated by Alison Anderson), and a bestseller in his native France.

Workers at a hydroelectric power plant find a decapitated horse turned into a grisly Pegasus by being partially skinned and suspended from the support tower of the cable car that affords the only access to the place. It’s no ordinary nag but the property of industrialist and plant owner Eric Lombard, so Commandant Servaz is summoned from Toulouse to investigate.

Servaz soon discovers DNA on the corpse from an inmate of the Wargnier Institute, a nearby secure unit for the criminally insane, and when a man is discovered hanging from a bridge and a connection is made to an epidemic of teenage suicides, things start to get very complicated indeed.

Less convincing than Servaz’s narrative is that of psychologist Diane Berg, who, newly arrived at the institute, exhibits a credibility-stretching penchant for creeping around a place chock-full of deranged serial killers in the middle of the night.


The latest novel from Northern Irish writer and Whitbread prize winner Maurice Leitch, Seeking Mr Hare (The Clerkenwell Press), is a slice of intriguing speculation about what might have happened to the notorious real-life grave-robber who was granted immunity for turning king’s evidence against his partner, William Burke, and who in 1829 disappeared from view.

This version of Hare is considerably smarter than the brutish dullard described by contemporary observers. Unrepentant, unscrupulous and pragmatic, he returns to his native Ireland, where he goes to ground with a mute servant girl in tow.

He’s being tailed by a former police detective, whose narrative takes the form of letters to his patron, a seeker after unholy relics who seems to be based on novelist and collector William Beckford.

It’s a picaresque story, almost meandering in places, but what it lacks in intensity is more than compensated for by Leitch’s rich characterisation and vivid depictions of life in 19th-century Ulster.


For those of us who grew up reading Daphne du Maurier, Celia Fremlin and co, there’s a definite feeling of wheel-reinvention about the spate of woman-centred psychological thrillers bobbing in the Gone Girl slipstream. Precious Thing (Headline), the first novel from Colette McBeth, is a superior example.

Hotshot TV reporter Rachel finds herself covering childhood friend Clara’s disappearance, and gradually realises that their relationship was not quite what it seemed. An absorbing read, if rather overdependent on coincidence. — Guardian News & Media

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Books , Fiction , Crime Thrillers , Precious Thing , A Song From Dead Lips , Available Dark , The Frozen Dead , Seeking Mr Hare


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