The Informant by Susan Wilkins published by Pan
The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths published by Quercus
Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell published by HarperCollins UK, William Morrow US
Crime fiction is written to satisfy so many different tastes that the only thing an honest critic can do is make his or her own preferences clear, while still reviewing novels that are likely to appeal to those with other interests.
Clare Mackintosh’s first novel, I Let You Go, is impressive and engaging and absolutely to my taste. Her police officers are not lonely drunken borderline psychopaths or eccentrics. They are ordinary human beings doing their best, much like those who have appeared in Channel 4’s recent documentary series 24 Hours in Custody. This is not surprising because Mackintosh herself served in the police for nine years.
Her clever plot starts with a fatal hit-and-run accident on the outskirts of Bristol. A small boy runs across the road in the rain and is killed, leaving his mother riven with guilt because she didn’t take better care of him. The narrative then divides, with one part following D.I. Ray Stevens and his team of Stumpy (a D.S.) and trainee Kate, as they investigate the crime. The other part explores the life of a woman traumatized by guilt and loss, who flees to a cold, damp shepherd’s cottage in the wildest part of Wales.
As the novel develops, Mackintosh doesn’t avoid describing violence, but she does it factually and without any suggestion that she would like to titillate those of sadistic inclination. She writes well and her characters convince as they are swung around by fate and mistakes and good intentions.
Another first novel published this month is The Informant by Susan Wilkins. This is a much flashier affair, with organized criminals, psychopaths, torturers, paedophiles, corrupt cops, dodgy accountants, shagging lawyers, graphic violence and hot lesbian sex. This novel is written for pace rather than style or emotional subtlety and includes many sentences such as: ‘She had consumed most of it when the entryphone system buzzed, she hobbled and hopped across the room, pressed the button and her heart soared as the tiny screen displayed Joey’s grinning face’; ‘And he was used to women fancying him, there was a cocksure look in in his eye, an expectation that his overtures would be reciprocated’; ‘He stared at her breasts, she was skinny, but she still had an ace pair of tits on her. She covered them reflexively with her forearms, then realized that effectively immobilized her.’ Copies of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves could be usefully supplied to all those who had a hand in the punctuation.
Elly Griffiths is another writer who can deal with extreme human suffering without ever wallowing in gore. For The Zig-Zag Girl, she has left her contemporary series character, Doctor Ruth Galloway, in East Anglia in order to explore her own family history in a novel about murder among a group of variety artists in Brighton. Set in the early 1950s, when the English were fighting their way out of wartime debt and coming to terms with a world in which their influence was dwindling, this narrative makes clear links between stage magic and the art of crime fiction. Max Mephisto, who invented the original trick of the zig-zag girl, served in a curious group of magicians and illusionists during the war. As the murders continue, he and D.I. Edgar Stephens look back to what happened then as they try to make sense of the killer’s growing violence.
Griffiths writes well and her excellent research has allowed her to recreate the sleazy glamour and griminess of her chosen time and place so vividly that you can almost smell the sweat and greasepaint, the candyfloss and the blood.
When Patricia Cornwell wrote her first novel, Postmortem, which was published in 1990, she changed crime fiction for ever. Her grasp of forensic pathology was matched by her ability to describe it for lay readers in a shocking and dramatic story. Since then her narrator, Doctor Kay Scarpetta, has occasionally seemed to be taking on some of the characteristics of the psychopaths she hunts in every instalment of the series, not least grandiosity, lack of empathy, and paranoia. Now, however, she has reappeared in more user-friendly form in Flesh and Blood. Evil is haunting her once again, and she is worried about her gifted but peculiar niece, Lucy. But this time Scarpetta shows more awareness of the way she affects other people, even describing her dealings with her longstanding police colleague, Marino: ‘I think about my being impersonal and cold, and I feel anger like a needlestick. When we first started working together years ago that’s what he thought. It seems worse to hear it now. Gratuitous, in fact. He didn’t need to say it and I’m not sure it’s an accurate description. I was earnest and diligent. Maybe my wry humour was lost on him....’ And perhaps on me too.
As always, the research behind Scarpetta’s investigation is superb and her account of tracking down the killer through the extraordinary, specially adapted bullets used to achieve apparently impossible killings will fascinate all gun and ballistics enthusiasts.