Published by Allison & Busby UK, Minotaur US
Blood Salt Water by Denise Mina
Published by Orion UK, Little, Brown US
Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham
Published by Sphere UK, Mulholland US
Icarus by Deon Meyer
Published by Hodder & Stoughton UK, Atlantic US
The English Spy by Daniel Silva
Published by HarperCollins UK, Harper US
Among the reasons people have given me over the years for enjoying crime fiction, four stand out: pure pleasure; the state of the nation; an insight into the human condition; and uncomplicated shooty-bang thrills that don’t require emotional engagement from the reader. I thought for this holiday-season column I would pick a bouquet of recent novels to suit all these tastes.
For pure pleasure, Judith Flanders’s Sam Clair series takes some beating, and the latest, A Bed of Scorpions, is just as engaging as the rest. Sam is a publisher and works in the chaos that I remember well from my own days as an editor. Her mother, on the other hand, is a lawyer of impeccable self-discipline and dress. She seems to work all the available hours and yet still manages to attend every important arts event in London. The relationship between the two of them works beautifully. Sam also has a boyfriend in CID, which both helps and frustrates her each time she becomes embroiled in crime and finds herself investigating. In this instalment of her adventures, murder happens in the world of fine art, bringing another aspect to Flanders’s excellently realized London. The tone of the novels is a delight and the writing is not only intelligent but also elegant.
For lovers of state-of-the-nation fiction, Denise Mina’s Blood Salt Water works well. She offers a bleak portrait of Scotland during the bitterness of the independence referendum campaign. This is a country divided between the haves and the have-nots in the legitimate world and its criminal counterpart. In both societies the rich and competent exploit the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Linking the two is Mina’s terrific series character, DI Alex Morrow, whose half-brother is a prince of organized crime, now in prison. Mina has a wonderful way with words and with the perception that gives her words their force. ‘Policing meant spending a lot of time with angry people, not all of them members of the public. Morrow knew anger well, its moods and its nuances. She found that anger was usually just fear with its make-up on...’
Michael Robotham’s lead character, psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, is equally perceptive, if less angry. He has Parkinson’s disease, an ex-wife he adores and two daughters he must protect. In Close Your Eyes, he’s enticed back into police work when two corpses are found in an isolated house in the west country, putting at risk everything he considers most important. In spite of the italicized chunks of the anonymous psychopath’s mutterings, which is a conceit I seriously dislike, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. And it offers a piece of Cherokee folk wisdom that is worth the cover price on its own. An old man tells his grandson that in each of us two wolves are fighting. One is benign and hopeful; the other, angry and violent. The child asks which will win and the old man says, ‘The one you feed.’
Deon Meyer also specializes in the human condition in his Benny Griessel novels, which lay out the current state of the South African nation in fine if alarming style. In Icarus Benny has to deal with all the usual violence, but he also finds himself exploring the burgeoning wine trade. Unfortunately for everyone, but especially for Benny and his family, he ignores the six hundred days he’s been dry, his AA sponsor, and his partner’s pleas and goes back on the drink, certain that he can enjoy alcohol and yet remain in control of it. Benny’s fall is neatly underlined by the delights offered by the best of the wine South Africa produces. Some of the historical background to the wine trade, offered in rambling family explanation to a lawyer, seems a little longer than necessary, but this is an impressive and convincing novel.
Much less emotionally complicated is Daniel Silva’s The English Spy. A New York Times bestseller, Silva offers Gabriel Allon, a senior officer in Israeli intelligence and also a world-class restorer of Renaissance painting. If you can swallow the unlikeliness of this double career and the idea that a man so high up in his organization would engage in street-level, hands-on violence, you will almost certainly enjoy this thriller, which includes the Russians, the Iranians, the British royal family, and the hard men of the IRA, left with nothing but undisguized criminality once their cause had been eaten by the Good Friday agreement.