The Serpent Pool, by Martin Edwards,
Allison & Busby 2010 ISBN: 978-0749007898
In The Serpent Pool, Martin Edwards combines a clever plot, the richly atmospheric setting of the Lake District, and complex characters to create a deeply satisfying rural mystery. Everyone is suspect, no one tells the truth, and nobody is entirely innocent – even Hannah Scarlett, his appealing heroine, has something to hide. The characters in this psychologically sophisticated novel are often ambiguous, sometimes ambivalent – yet always interesting – and the reader is treated fairly, so while Edwards may misdirect his readers shamelessly, he never withholds facts which are essential to solving the case. Edwards’s love of word-puzzles is in evidence, as is his dry wit, but the humour is finely balanced against some of the darker moments to make this a hugely enjoyable read.
Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell
Heinemann, Trade Paperback: £12.99, publishing date 5th February 2009 ISBN: 9780 434 019236
Peter Brown is a resident physician in Manhattan’s worst public hospital. A gentle, intellectual Jewish boy who set out to revenge a double murder and on the way became the Mob’s most feared hitman. He lies, he kills – but always with a conscience. He’s also an expert in martial arts and the art of survival – and it takes every ounce of his resourcefulness to stay alive when the Mob come after him.
This weird and wonderful creation combines the wicked charm of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter with the Tarantino’s graphic violence. Beat the Reaper is inventive, ebullient, and charged with an energy that is half rage and half sheer joyful exuberance.
Bazell uses footnotes to explain human biology, science and even historical background on the Holocaust. It might throw you at first, but bear with it: the information is peculiarly seductive, and Bazell’s presentation of the facts playful and shocking in just the right measure, so that you’ll find yourself looking forward to his brief asides.
Beat the Reaper is a preposterous, funny, exciting, glorious piece of fiction – Josh Bazell doesn’t tap politely at crime fiction’s door and wait for admittance: he charges in and kicks the door down.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley, Orion Books £12.99 hardback ISBN: 978 0 7528 9193 4
Dysfunctional families are always more interesting than the happy ones – and this certainly holds true for the ancient lineage of the De Luces. Flavia De Luce is an eleven year old with a penchant for poisons – and she is by far the most balanced and normal member of the household. She is also precocious, endearing, as fiercely intelligent as she is independent, with a Holmesian fascination with science – particularly the chemistry of poisons.
This sparkling debut came out of the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger competition. The judges recognised a rare wit in the 3000 word submission and Alan Bradley has exceeded even their expectations, producing an entertaining, funny, exciting and engrossing novel, as accomplished as many more experienced writers in the genre.
Rare stamps, a rarefied English country house setting and an ingenious murder weapon will keep the reader absorbed from start to finish. The 1950s milieu provides sufficient latitude for Flavia, the heroine, to spend long hours unsupervised without provoking the officious interest of social services, and Bradley makes excellent use of the inequality of girls and women at that time without ever labouring the point. This is a murder mystery in the traditional setting of an old country house, but The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie takes a distinctly untraditional slant which results in a richly rewarding reading experience.
Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson, ISBN 978 0 091 794 50 7
Engleby is such an essential Christmas read I am convinced Santa’s Elves have pre-empted this recommendation and are already packing them for crime fiction readers everywhere. The story is narrated by Mike Engleby, a second year student at an ‘ancient university’. The narrative voice is simple, unembellished, yet from the start, we are convinced that we are dealing with an exceptional mind – uncompromising, fiercely intelligent, wickedly funny – and deeply disturbed. The working-class boy’s agonisingly painful progress through the public school system, his alienation which persists through university and into adulthood, is told unsentimentally, and without rancour, but we burn with shame and rage on his behalf.
A fellow student disappears, and Engleby mourns her loss, yet we feel an unease: despite his eidetic memory for facts, there are gaps in his memory of events. Engleby is compulsive, immediate and suspenseful. Crime fiction reminiscent of the early Barbara Vine novels: although there is relatively little incident, the writer keeps the reader in a state of constant dread – a truly masterful work.
by Ken Bruen
Bantam Press trade paperback
Ken Bruen’s novels reference poetry, literature
and history, but at the heart of each is religion.
Cross, his new Jack Taylor novel, begins with a crucifixion
and explores the themes of aftermath, damnation, revenge
One of the three definitions of the word cross, given
as the epigraph to the novel, is ‘Cross: in
a very bad humour’. In this latest Jack Taylor
mystery, the hero is very cross – he seethes,
rages and brawls until he damn near exhausts himself.
But Jack has plenty of cause to be grouchy: his young
friend lies in a coma, the crucifixion killer goes
on to murder again, and Jack has foresworn booze.
The reader’s relationship with Jack is much
like his relationship with Ridge, his friend and verbal
sparring partner. Jack’s impotent fury, which
we feel through him, is often hard to take. It’s
visceral anguished and bitter. But it is real. And
just when you feel you want to turn from the man in
disgust, to leave him to wallow in his self-destructive
urges, he does something surprising – something
kind – like taking tea with a grieving woman
as a kind of ritual solace. With Jack, there’s
always a tension between the promise of redemption
and an expectation of failure.
Cross is bleak and uncompromising, but there is wit
and heart and soul, too, and in amongst the suffering
Bruen allows us one spark of hope for the ex-guard,
one glimmer of light that suggests that, damned though
he is, Jack will not suffer entirely alone.
Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp
Allison & Busby Paperback (2 April 2007)
Eddie Elkins is not a happy bunny. He should be ecstatic.
As a sleaze with a penchant for little kids, he’s
the eight-foot furball all the children come
running to when they visit Lamaar Studios. For a guy
like Eddie this is a plum job – in the guise
of Rambunctious Rabbit, the icon and emblem of the
firm – he’s been given a licence to perv.
But someone is out to destroy Lamaar and all it has
come to represent, and Eddie is first on their list.
Not too many tears are shed for Eddie’s passing,
but the next victim is not so easy to discount. Or
The Rabbit Factory introduces Detectives Mike Lomax
and Terry Biggs, an engaging and likeable duo who
complement each other in style and approach. Ordinary
men with ordinary problems – not counting the
brother with a contract out on him.
As the murders escalate, there are plenty of suspects,
and some cheeky parallels are drawn between Lamaar
and other entertainment conglomerates, which all adds
to the fun. The Rabbit Factory isn’t
out to make a political point – its purpose
is to entertain. And that’s just what it does,
from start to finish. It’s funny and fast, but
with some poignant moments woven deftly into the furious
pace. This is Marshall Karp’s first novel –
though he has been a writer all his life. Commercials,
TV sitcoms, a play, and a movie. A long apprenticeship,
but one that shows in the quality of the writing.
This is a sure-fire winner.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £10 Hbk ISBN: 0-297-85152-7
Journalist Camille Preaker is a writer – on
so many levels. Words have a visceral effect
on her: they flare, buzz, itch, scream. Camille has
escaped the small-town hell of Wind Gap, but returns
to report on the disappearance of a child. When a
body is found, and then a second child goes missing,
she is sent spiralling back into the harrowing events
of her own loveless childhood.
Camille calls herself ‘trash – from old
money.’. Her mother owns the pig farm, the only
source of industry in the town. Manipulative, damaged
and needy, Adora (never ‘Mom’), is appropriately
named; it’s what she demands – total adoration
– and those around her who fail inn this feel
her punishing disapproval. She has made a monster
of Camille’s half-sister, the preening, sexually
precocious child of Adora’s second marriage.
The gothic tone and setting of Sharp Objects
is coupled with a building tension which gnaws at
you until you dread turning the page, yet feel compelled
to read on. The mystery of the girls’ disappearance,
their murder and mutilation are inextricably linked
to Camille – she must unravel the secrets of
her childhood and the death of her own sister, while
fending off the disintegration of her own personality.
Flynn achieves a wonderful balance of wit and creepy
suspense which makes Sharp Objects a sure
Hard Revolution, by George Pelecanos
Orion Books ISBN 075 285 630 8
Hard Revolution is about choice and lack of choice, actions and
consequences. Fans will be delighted to discover something of black
PI Derek Strange’s youth in this tale which spans a decade
of reforms and increasing racial tension in America, culminating
in the Washington riots of 1968. Hard Revolution reflects Pelecanos’s
interest in racial politics and gives a richly drawn history of
the time. There is a prodigious amount of name-checking which does
not enrich or enlighten, however: the cars, the music, the streets – even
the stores on the streets are catalogued in lists that are best
skimmed by all but the most assiduous reader.
A black youth with a promising future is run down in a racial attack.
Three white men plan a bank robbery while three black men plan to
hold up a store. They want the same things: money, nice things,
respect, and they hate in the same way, without reason or thought.
The depiction of unfulfilled talent represented by Dennis, Derek’s
older brother, is unflinchingly portrayed, as are the racial inequalities
and injustices of the time. In the kind of reversal that elevates
this book above the average crime novel, Strange’s assumptions
and prejudices are challenged by his white, Princeton-educated partner
‘When he looked at Peters he saw a white man
first and a man second,’ Strange realises.
There is much to like in this novel: Pelecanos illustrates the ease
with which a man may slide into crime and degradation – not
with one pivotal act, but by a series of small, seemingly insignificant
choices which set him on a path. The choices Strange makes explain
why he becomes a cop – and why he does not remain one. Like
Robert Frost, he took the road less travelled, and for Strange,
that has made all the difference.
The Cutting Room, by Louise Welsh
Canongate, ISBN 1841954047
The Cutting Room is ostensibly a detective story, an amateur sleuth
doing what amateur sleuths do – bumbling about, bashing into
clues rather than tracking them down, and putting themselves and
others in jeopardy. But Louise Welsh’s debut novel is so much
more than this: it is about enduring friendship and loyalty and
morality as much as it is about the amorality of sadistic torture
and murder. The characters in this novel are complex and interesting;
in particular Rilke, the drunken auctioneer whose homosexual encounters
are more about rut than romance. Nevertheless, he has a strong sense
of right and wrong and is prepared to risk his life to discover
the truth about a possible murder that happened before he was born.
There are some superb vignettes, such as a scene near the end of
the novel in which we get a glimpse into the psyche of ‘characters’ in
the auction room on the morning of an important sale. The playfulness
as well as the pathos of an existence rummaging through the cast-offs
of other people’s lives is brought brilliantly to life. Such
apparently effortless writing comes from skilful crafting, so it
was a surprise that the denouement was based on a premise that tested
the bounds of plausibility. But it seems churlish to mention it,
because this is a novel by a highly accomplished writer.
There was an almost Shakespearean elegiac quality to Welsh’s
analysis of love in her chapter on the nature of pornography, and
just at the moment that the reader might begin to turn away, she
adds a touch of humour, bringing the whole subject back to earth
with an archness to which the reader responds with pleasure, as
a knowing participant. At other times, she uses a shorthand which
is experimental in its presentation, as in the bidding scene in
the chapter entitled Caveat Emptor.
Louise Welsh’s first novel was a real thrill to read – the
thrill of discovering a new writer with a big talent.
Haunted Ground by Erin Hart
Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0 340 82759 9
Haunted Ground begins with a description of turf-cutting that is
reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging. Landscape and
heightened atmospherics are used skilfully throughout Erin Hart’s
debut novel; from the opening paragraph the landscape of the west
of Ireland is marked out as important in shaping the personalities
and the lives of its inhabitants.
When the severed head of a young woman is found in an ancient bog, Cormac Maguire,
the archaeologist sent to investigate, together with pathologist Nora Gavin
are faced with mysteries and animosities between the native Irish and the planters
which go back hundreds of years.
Haunted Ground is a Gothic tale of death and disappointment, murder and loss,
but it also deals with the broader issues of Ireland’s tragic history.
The various threads are laid out one by one: an ancient story of murder and
infanticide, a very modern disappearance of mother and child, the murder of
Nora Gavin’s sister.
The discovery of the decapitated head sets tongues wagging: Hugo Osborne’s
wife vanished two years ago, along with her little boy. Is Hugo responsible?
There are many in the village who think so, and his friendship with Una McGann,
a woman with her own secrets, is seen by many as proof of his earlier infidelities.
Past and present converge in a plot as deftly interwoven as the warp and weft
of one of Una McGann’s tapestries.
Hart captures beautifully the cadence and rhythms of Irish speech, and although
the American Doctor Gavin’s voice was not distinctive enough for me,
the ambivalence of the Irish people towards the ‘American tourists’ seeking
their lost roots is cleverly echoed by the Irish passion for folklore and musical
traditions which resonates throughout the novel.
The Untouchable, by John Banville
In The Untouchable, Banville unfolds, with teasing flourishes,
a compelling tale of intrigue, obsession and betrayal. Written
a retrospective - the memoirs of a spy - the narrative provides
excitement and humour with poignant counter-point. Victor Maskell
is elegant, urbane and witty, a seductive anti-hero, whose persuasive
powers draw us in only to exultantly confound us.
Banville’s prose is finely crafted, each sentence perfectly balanced.
The Untouchable is a ‘mine of precious stones’ with a gem on
every page that will make you smile or sigh or laugh with sheer delight.