The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham published by Little Brown
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith published by Sphere
The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait published by Picador
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller published by Headline
Lindsey Davis’s many fans will have been made anxious by the news that she is embarking on a new series with a new sleuth. They need not worry. Marcus Didius Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is a wonderful creation, rendered with a surprising tenderness. Rescued as a child from danger and destitution in the barbarian country of Britain, Flavia Albia is now grown up and investigating a series of perplexing deaths in Rome, secretly rescuing wild foxes from a horrible fate, and fighting the hardest of all women’s battles: how to remain independent and yet commit yourself to love. Just as closely researched and yet light-hearted as the Falco novels, The Ides of April is more touching.
Mark Billingham is another writer with legions of fans, who will not be disappointed with his latest novel, The Dying Hours. Tom Thorne has been demoted and is back working in uniform, angry and unhappily bad at relationships but still skilled in detection. Again, we are offered a series of puzzling deaths, this time all looking like suicide. Billingham provides more gruesome details than Davis, and fewer laughs, but his affection for the emotionally incompetent Thorne is warming.
There is also plenty of affection in The Cuckoo’s Calling, a first novel by an ex-special-forces soldier, writing under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. His hero, Cormoran Strike, shares his military background and is struggling with a prosthetic lower leg, a private-investigation business on its uppers, and a disastrous, just-ended relationship with a rich beautiful woman. The only lucky aspects of his life are a potential new client with lots of money and a murdered sister and his own new temp, Robin Ellacott.
Robin is everyone’s idea of the perfect assistant: seeing everything and commenting on nothing; economical; efficient; honest; generous; and funny. Cormoran Strike is great too, described early in the novel as ‘massive; his height, his general hairiness, coupled with a gently expanding belly, suggested a grizzly bear. One of his eyes was puffy and bruised, the skin just below the eyebrow cut...’
The plot could have come from an Agatha Christie novel and yet The Cuckoo’s Calling is absolutely of today, colourfully written and great fun.
The View on the Way Down offers no fun at all, or investigation, but it deals with the aftermath of a crime on an ordinary family in a way that is heartbreakingly bleak. Dad finds solace turning wood in his shed. Mum cleans and bakes manically. Pre-teen Emma is fat and bullied at school, and looking for consolation from religion. All three are locked in their own solitude as they try to make sense of the loss of Emma’s two elder brothers, who were once inseparably devoted. This first novel by Rebecca Wait is a beautifully written exploration of loss and blame.
Julia Keller’s A Killing in the Hills came out in hardback last summer, but I missed it then. Now published in paperback, it reveals the difficulties of life in a small town inWest Virginia. Bell Elkins escaped a dreadful childhood there, went to law school and was set for a bright future far away from the privations she had once known, but conscience drove her back. Now divorced with a rebellious teenage daughter, she is a prosecuting attorney, fighting the casual but destructive drug culture she sees all around. Her war puts her and her daughter at risk, as well as opening all kinds of old wounds and ramming home to her (and to us) the awful depths of rural poverty inAmerica. There are hints of an apple-pie kind of ending but Keller manages to write movingly, while at the same time avoids all sentimentality.