July Crime Round-Up

The Red Road by Denise Mina published by Orion

A Killing of Angels by Kate Rhodes published by Mulholland/Hodder & Stoughton

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran published by Faber

Reviewed by N.J.Cooper

A fellow panelist (male) at a crime writing festival once explained to me that the foundation of noir fiction is ‘the trauma of masculinity’, which is presumably why we have all read so many novels about miserable men who are unable to sustain affectionate relationships with anyone and so form dysfunctional attachments to alcohol or illicit substances as they follow the clues to the identity of a killer.  There have, of course, been plenty of women investigators, from the quiet analytical specialists such as Miss Marple to the vigorous and angry pugilists of the V I Warshawski type, but too often they have conformed to a particular idea of femininity.

All of which makes this month’s crime selection such a refreshment to the spirit.  All three novelists have individual voices and provide distinctive points of view.  Denise Mina started her career with the magnificent Garnet Hill trilogy, followed that with the entertaining adventures of Paddy Mehan, and now explores Glasgow crime through the eyes of DI Alex Morrow.  She is an excellent creation, a woman who has children, a not wholly satisfactory husband, a brother in organized crime, and a determination to juggle everyone’s needs without dropping any of them. 

The Red Road deals with an old injustice and a series of new and topical crimes, opening with fourteen-year-old Rose Wilson being pimped by the man she describes as her boyfriend.  Reading Mina’s fiction is invigorating as well as entertaining because her plots and characters arouse real fury.  She sees far too clearly to allow a perfectly neat or happy ending, but she always gives satisfaction.

Kate Rhodes is a newer novelist, with a past as an academic and prize-winning poet.  Her sleuth is forensic psychologist Dr Alice Quentin, who works from Guy’s Hospital in London.  Quentin’s life and career are driven by her own past as the child of a violent man.  Sometimes his victim, sometimes the unhappy witness of her mother’s and brother’s sufferings, she has survived but is damaged.  Her relationship with her mother is particularly interesting.  They meet regularly and Alice has to fight her continuing rage at her mother’s denials, perfect mask, and assumption that Alice will always be responsible for her brother.  As a psychologist, Alice must know all about the ways in which battered women deal with what happens to them, but she is a daughter, too, and she cannot forgive.

Her first appearance in Crossbones Yard introduced the family dynamic, which is well developed in A Killing of Angels, the second novel in the series.  This takes Alice into the heart of greed as she encounters a bunch of Notting Hill bankers, terrified by a serial killer, who appears determined to take revenge on them all. Plenty of readers will sympathize with the need to punish the people perceived to have caused the financial crisis and subsequent austerity, which gives a sharp edge to the hunt for the killer. 

Sara Gran makes the link between detection and self-realization explicit in Clare DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, quoting her imaginary manual of investigation, Jaques Silette’s Détection, as an epigraph:

            The detective thinks he is investigating a murder or a missing girl but truly he is  investigating something else altogether.... I believe that someday, perhaps many lifetimes from now, all will be explained...including the biggest mystery of all – who we really are.

Claire and her late mentors, associates and current employee, have all been inspired by Silette, either in person or in his book.  They are all peculiar, mostly sad, very brave in the unlikeliest of ways, and immensely keen on illicit substances of all kinds.  Forty-year-old Claire keeps a stash of prescription painkillers and plenty of other uppers and downers to deal with the traumas of herself, her life and her clients.  She exhibits an alluring mixture of sadness and wit as she tries to identify the murderer of an old lover, rich musician Paul, in his glamorous San Francisco house.  Another old lover, Nick, is a Chinese herbalist and keeps an eye on Claire’s body and mind, both of which take considerable beatings. San Francisco provides the ideal backdrop to Claire’s life:  fun, buzzy, colourful, and subject to the most awful fogs that roll in to obliterate every good thing about the city.

I missed Gran’s first novel, The City and the Dead, but I have so much enjoyed Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway that I’m going straight back to it.

Murder is murder and sleuths will probably always be dysfunctional, but it is really good to see such strong female characters and writers taking on the world without any need to hide, change, or placate anyone.  Long may they continue.

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