January Crime Column

N.J. Cooper

Celebrated crime novelist and short-story writer Natasha Cooper also reviews widely. Here, in the first of her monthly crime round-ups for bookoxygen, she discusses three January releases which have impressed her.

Dead Water by Ann Cleeves

Published by Macmillan 31 January 2013, 400pp, hardback £16.99

Capital Punishment by Robert Wilson

Published by Orion 17 January 2013, 416pp, hardback £14.99

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Published by Mulholland/Hodder 3 January 2013, 308pp, paperback, £13.99

The world of crime fiction is remarkably inclusive. Someone, somewhere, is writing the kind of novels you want to read. The challenge is to find out who they are. January sees publication of three titles that play with many of the same ingredients and yet offer entirely different pleasures.

Ann Cleeves, whose Northumbrian Vera novels have provided one of ITV’s most popular series, also writes about Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, who was born on Fair Isle and now works on Shetland. The first novel in the series won the CWA Gold Dagger and has also been televized, to be shown later in the year. In her latest novel, Dead Water, Perez is on compassionate leave, fighting the depression that followed the murder of his fiancée and looking after her seven-year-old daughter, Cassie. In his absence DI Willow Reeves is sent from the Hebrides to lead an investigation into the death of a journalist, who made his name in London but has returned to Shetland on the track of an explosive story.

The small island communities are clearly hiding secrets. They are split between the indigenous population, who want jobs and outside investment, and the naïve newcomers, who have romantic ideas about preserving beautiful views and uneconomic but traditional ways of life. The journalist’s body is soon followed by another, and suspicion spreads. Jimmy Perez can’t resist joining the investigation, which irritates Reeves and worries their junior officer. All the violence happens off the page and is reported, mainly in dialogue, to one or other of the DIs. Even when a crucial suspect is kidnapped and faces death, the ordeal is unalarming to read: ‘...threw me into the hatchery. There was a padlock on the outside. Then he disappeared....Then I lost consciousness again. When I woke it was dark.... [he] was in the shed. I smelled him, heard him moving. And you turned up.’

Cleeves shows how rage can build in small communities, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and how hard life can be in the ravishing but bleak Shetland landscape. Perez is not the only one who suffers anxiety and loss, imposing the effects of his misery on everyone else. He likes and fancies Reeves and yet cannot see what he does to her when he avoids all real communication.

The message of this gentle novel is clear: neither love nor good intention is enough; it is incumbent on all of us to imagine the likely effect of what we do and say on those around us.

Robert Wilson, who has set earlier novels in Africa, Spain and Portugal, winning the CWA Gold Dagger for A Small Death in Lisbon, has now settled on London as the setting for Capital Punishment. He also has a grief-stricken hero, Charlie Boxer, doing his inadequate best for his daughter, who is about ten years older than Cleeves’s Cassie. Boxer, who has a serious gambling problem, was once in the army before working for the biggest international kidnap consultants and is now freelance. His ex-lover and the mother of his daughter is Mercy Danquah, a Ghanaian officer in the Met’s special kidnap squad. Both become involved in the kidnap of Alyshia d’Cruz, the daughter of a Mumbai billionaire.

In this novel, all the action is there on the page: ‘...she felt her foot in the other man’s hand, a terrible grip which twisted her ankle so that she had to roll with it or have it torn off. He dragged her towards him. Her other leg trapped beneath her. He got her face down on the floor of the cab, both ankles secured, knees bent and heels jammed against her buttocks. He leaned over and grabbed her hair, pulled her head back until her throat was stretched so tight she couldn’t even squeak. She lashed out with her fists. One was caught and then the other and forced behind her back. A man’s crotch was now in her face...’

The plot ranges more widely than Cleeves’s, both geographically and emotionally, taking in gangs and drugs, sex trafficking, corruption and more. Capital Punishment is an engrossing, shocking, and illuminating novel.

Different again is Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine. Ellis is an award-winning and successful graphic novelist from Essex, who has chosen to set his new prose novel inNew York City. Two cops, great friends as well as partners, are called to an apartment building to answer a 911 call. A naked man has been threatening his fellow residents with a large shotgun. One of the cops, Rosato, has a dodgy knee, which gives way under him so that the gunman’s potentially trivial shot, ‘tore off the upper left side of [his] head. There was a wet smack as a fitsful of his brain hit the stairwell wall.’

This leaves his partner, John Tallow, to fell the naked gunman and investigate, fighting the inertia and possible corruption of his bosses and their political allies until he uncovers the reasons why the gunman took off his clothes and fired. Like Ann Cleeves’s Dead Water, Gun Machine is set in a circumscribed environment and deals with loss, guilt, and tormented affection, but there the resemblance ends. Where her language is gentle and elliptical, his is sparkily vigorous and pulls no punches whatsoever. Describing the gunman, he writes: ‘a bodybuilder gone to burgers and long days on the sofa...The top of his head was bald and seemed too small to contain a human brain. His cock sat atop his pouchy balls like a gray clit.’

If you have the stomach for it, this is a thoroughly entertaining, fast-moving, if slightly implausible, adventure into a particular kind of psychopathic mindscape.

Crime fiction does indeed offer something for everyone

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