February Crime Round-Up

N.J. Cooper

Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths  Published by Quercus

Cross Bones Yard by Kate Rhodes  Published by Mulholland

The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams  Published by Macmillan

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor  Published by HarperCollins


In the most satisfying crime fiction it is rarely the murder and investigation that linger in the mind after the last page is turned.  Readers remember the characters, their relationships and dilemmas as they are pushed to the edge of what they can bear, which is why so many enjoy series more than standalone novels.

This month sees the latest instalment in the life of Elly Griffiths’s archaeologist Ruth Galloway, as she looks into the murder of an old university friend, who may have discovered the body of King Arthur.  If he has, the details of his find will overset centuries of myth and self-interest.  Ruth is an overweight, forty-something, clever single mother of two-year-old Kate.  Her best friend is a Druid who calls himself Cathbad and likes to wear a theatrical cloak. Griffiths takes some unpromising ingredients and apparently unattractive characters and, with good jokes and an easy style, creates a world of such warmth and charm that I could swallow any number of mad Druids and exotic killings.

Kate Rhodes also has deranged characters in her first novel, Cross Bones Yard, which is led by psychologist Alice Quentin.  She is quite as appealing as Ruth Galloway and much harder edged, working in a beautifully realized South London.  Rhodes is an award-winning poet and writes with an immediacy that matches her fast-moving plot.  When Alice is called in by the police to advise on murders that look like copies of a past husband-and-wife serial-killing spree, she has to face all her own demons.  Daughter of a violent man who beat her and her mother and forced her brother to watch his brutality, Alice cannot commit herself to any relationship of her own and is, not surprisingly, drawn to precisely those men who will put her most at risk.  Psychologically convincing, Cross Bones Yard is set to be the start of an interesting series.

Older than Alice, and less impressive professionally, is Jessica Mayhew, the psychotherapist heroine of Charlotte Williams’s first novel, The House on the Cliff.  Mayhew’s latest client, Gwydion Morgan presents with a phobia against buttons and some dark secrets she must help him uncover.  Williams, herself training to be a psychotherapist, bravely depicts her chosen trade in a way that will confirm the worst prejudices against it:  without any scientific rigour, driven by fashion in and out of such potentially destructive territory as Recovered Memory, and practised in this fictional case by a woman so lacking in control (and supervision) that she can not only contemplate a sexual relationship with a client but actually indulge in plenty of hanky panky with him.

Unlike these three writers, Andrew Taylor looks back to the eighteenth century to uncover the emotions and behaviour that drive violent crime in The Scent of Death.  His investigator is Edward Savill, sent to New York during the American War of Independence to settle claims against the British government.  Savill is lodging in the house of a judge when he becomes involved in the murder of one Roger Pickett, for which a runaway slave is soon convicted.  Unconvinced, Savill finds the truth to be far more complicated, and, on the way, comes to understand a great deal about the workings of the human mind and heart.

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