December Crime Round-Up

N. J. Cooper

The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh published by Hodder & Stoughton UK, Minotaur Books US

Casting the First Stone by Frances Fyfield published by Sphere

The Shadow Tracer by M.G. Gardiner published by Penguin UK, Dutton US

Until Death by Ali Knight published by Hodder & Stoughton


Characters in crime series can become so well loved that they acquire an existence beyond the one provided by their creators: sometimes only in the imagination of faithful readers; sometimes at the hands of the other writers. The novelist who inherits someone else’s creations takes an enormous risk, but Booker-shortlisted Jill Paton Walsh has not quailed.

Her first collaboration with the late Dorothy L. Sayers was to complete Thrones, Dominations, which Sayers had left unfinished at her death. Then came A Presumption of Death, which was based on the Wimsey family letters that Sayers wrote for the Spectator in 1939 and 1940.  Paton Walsh wrote The Attenbury Emeralds herself, using only a small reference in Sayers’s own novels, and now offers The Late Scholar, which sees Peter Wimsey as the new Duke of Denver and Harriet Vane as his duchess, living in a small surviving part of Denver Hall after the Second World War. Their ghastly sister-in-law Helen has a house nearby and Peter’s superb mother, Honoria, has rooms in their house.

Paton Walsh’s Honoria doesn’t have quite the amazingly free-flowing, discursive, all-encompassing chatter of Sayers’s version, but in all other respects she is the same, if, naturally, older and frailer. Both Peter and Harriet convince as they investigate dark goings-on and death at St Severin’s College in Oxford. Many references to Sayers’s novels can be found in the narrative, giving great pleasure to any reader familiar with the canon. The jokes are civilized, the post-war background neatly realized, the descriptions charming, and the fact that the investigation turns on the authorship of a review in the TLS (in the days when they were all anonymous) is wholly apt.

Frances Fyfield has a loyal following, all of whom will be pleased with the return of Sarah Fortune and Di Porteous in her latest novel. Set by the sea, Casting the First Stone is a meditation on guilt, loss and redemption, as well as the need for healing, art and beautiful clothes, personified by a group of weirdly alienated characters, whose only real solace is their interaction with people even more peculiar than themselves.

M.G.Gardiner has a new version of her name to go with a new publisher and a new style, which should bring her a whole new readership. The Shadow Tracer is an excellent thriller, which shows that high tension and a fast-paced narrative are not the preserve of fighting men and their guns. Her heroine, Sarah Keller, is a frightened woman, whose terrors are not allowed to affect her extraordinary courage. Her careful life with her daughter Zoe is overturned when the child is involved in a school-bus accident and taken to the emergency room, where she is found to be have been micro-chipped like a dog. Terrified of the people who must have done it at Zoe’s birth, Sarah puts their long-planned escape into practice and the rest of the novel is a breathless ride across America. Sarah is so appealing that even when the dark parts of her past are illuminated, she keeps you reading. I hope we will see more of her.

Another terrified but impressively brave woman leads Ali Knight’s third novel, Until Death. Kelly is more or less incarcerated by her rich, brutal husband, Christos Malamatos. They live in a glamorous flat above St Pancras with their two children and Christos’s mother, Medea, who may not be quite as fearsome as her original namesake but is no help to Kelly. Possibilities of unlikely salvation come with a Customs & Excise inspection of Christos’s companies, carried out by a team that includes the wonderful Georgie Bell.

Georgie’s family has given her a good insight into the criminal mind, although she herself is determined to stay legitimate. Unlike her male colleagues, she can sense some of Kelly’s despair and needs to help. The twists of the two women’s intertwined stories work well, and Knight shows exactly how an intelligent and emotionally resilient woman can still become a victim of a controlling, violent man.

Like all the best thrillers M.G.Gardiner’s and Ali Knight’s are fun as well as shocking – and moving.

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