May crime round-up

N.J. Cooper

The Distance by Helen Giltrow published by Orion UK, Doubleday US

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham published by Orion

Lonely Graves by Britta Bolt published by Mulholland

Can Anybody Help Me?by Sinéad Crowley published by Quercus


Just after expressing a wish in last month’s column that more women would write spy fiction, I found Helen Giltrow’s The Distance.  This first novel offers Charlotte Alton, a freelance specialist in undercover work and the invention or destruction of identities for clients who need to hide from local or international enemies.  An old colleague, with whom she has an emotional history, wants her to get him in to an experimental and privately run prison, as an inmate, in search of his latest target.  The prison, known as ‘The Program’, has been set up as a stopgap to deal with the crime wave that followed the recession and subsequent austerity measures.  While there are guards patrolling the place, most of the organization is conducted by the prisoners themselves.  This allows Giltrow plenty of scope for explicitly described brutality.

Given that the recession and its economic consequences have, surprisingly, not resulted in a terrible crime wave, and, in spite of all the privatization we have seen, there has been no prison like The Program, suspension of disbelief is hard to achieve.  However, Giltrow has some interesting points to make about the dodgy territory between organized crime and the more secretive departments involved in public protection and the pursuit of justice.  She is also an effective writer of colourful prose and generates plenty of narrative tension.  I could have done with less cruelty, but that is a matter of personal taste.

More undercover work is undertaken in Harry Bingham’s third novel, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths.  DC Griffiths is an officer working with South Wales police and dealing with her own particular problems.  She has a dissociative personality disorder, an adoptive father with a background in organized crime, and enormous charm.  Sent on a course for undercover officers, she finds the challenge hard but well within her huge capabilities and is soon put to work as an office cleaner ready to do favours for criminals who can pay.  I believed in neither her psychiatric disorder nor her superhuman abilities and endurance, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in her company, and the cleaning scenes are utterly credible.  There is wit here, and warmth, and great pace.

All crime novelists have to understand the worlds in which their victims and villains operate, just as successful investigators must, even when they are not actually going undercover.  One unusual group are members of the (fictional) Funeral Team of the Department of Emergencies and Internment in Amsterdam, who are called on whenever anonymous corpses are found in the city.  This is the creation of ‘Britta Bolt’, the writing partnership of Rodney Bolt and Britta Böhler.  Their main character, Pieter Posthumus, is an endearing man, with the accidental death of his brother on his conscience, an informal surrogate family based on a local café, and a tenderness for the lonely dead he encounters in his work.  The novel explores the difficulties of melding different cultures in an intelligent and open-minded way.

Different cultures are also on show in another first novel, Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley, but this time they are divided by age rather than race or religion.  When a young mother disappears in Ireland after meeting a man in a pub and going to his flat, other women of her age think she had every right to behave as though there are no bad guys out there, because there shouldn’t be, while her mother’s contemporaries think any women who does that is irresponsible, if not actively asking for trouble.  The disappearance is investigated by DS Claire Boyle, who is herself expecting a child and resentful of the way pregnant women are expected to ‘leave your individuality and your name at the door of the ante-natal ward’.  Boyle’s story is interspersed with pseudonymous messages posted on ‘netmammy’, a social-networking site for new mothers, which explores every aspect of the nightmare of living with small babies, toddlers, and unhelpful husbands.  The men are occasionally given their say, too, with one of the good ones offering a neat and convincing vignette of the man who tries to do his best and is never allowed to be right.  When shopping with his wife, he finds everything he puts in the basket criticized, but if he asks her precisely what she wants him to buy she accuses him of putting all the responsibility on to her.  I suspect that a reader would need to be pregnant or newly delivered to get full value from this novel, but there are many characters with whom it is easy to sympathize.

Crime fiction takes its creators and its readers to many different places and allows them to share both the most extreme and the most mundane of human experiences – and, perhaps, to understand their own lives more clearly.  That is why it matters.

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