Published by Faber & Faber
I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjork
Published by Doubleday UK, Viking US
In the Cold Dark Ground by Stuart Macbride
Published by HarperCollins
The Widow by Fiona Barton
Published by Bantam UK, NAL US
Dead Pretty by David Mark
Published by Mulholland Books
The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood
Published by Sphere UK, Penguin US
The New Year has brought a cornucopia of treats for lovers of all kinds of crime novels and thrillers. Technically Francesca Kay’s The Long Room is a thriller in that it is all about what is going to happen, rather than investigating what has happened. Stephen Donaldson is the clever, socially isolated son of a single mother of limited means. He has a job as an MI5 listener in the 1980s, analyzing tapes of bugged telephone calls to try to pick up evidence of treachery. Like his colleagues, he is a target for foreign intelligence officers. He becomes obsessed with one of the people on whose lives he eavesdrops and it is clear that some kind of disaster will follow. Kay uses the quietest possible language to generate extreme tension as we wait to find out what Stephen is going to do and who is going to suffer. She writes in an elegantly simple style and I found her creation of this troubled young man absolutely convincing.
I’d be interested to know how Kay’s Stephen strikes male readers because I am not always persuaded by the women invented by men. One who has got it right for me is Samuel Bjork in his first novel I’m Travelling Alone. His heroine is Mia Krüger, who has fled her police career to blunt her emotional agony with drink and as many pills as she can get while she waits for the auspicious day to kill herself and so re-join her twin sister, who died of an overdose of heroin in a filthy basement. Mia’s erstwhile colleague, Holger Munch, is desperate to get her back to work and identify the serial killer of little girls on their way to school. I am not particularly interested in serial killers, but Mia’s predicament and her relationship with Holger kept me reading. On the way to the mystery’s solution Bjork offers heartbreaking children of both sexes and enough adults of supreme selfishness to justify almost anything the good ones might do to protect the victims. Charlotte Barslund’s smooth translation never gets between writer and reader.
Stuart Macbride’s DCI Roberta Steel has never struck me as a particularly realistic police officer, although I am not familiar enough with Scottish law enforcement to be certain, but her foul-mouthed bullying, grotesque personal habits and warm-hearted loyalty bring much-needed humour to the grim life of his hero, DS Logan McRae. Laz to his friends, Logan suffers more punishments even than Job as he struggles to bring law and order to the rain-drenched north east of Scotland. His girlfriend of several years ago is lying expensively in a nursing home in a persistent vegetative state and he must decide when to switch off her life-support. The cost of her care means that he has to exist on the cheapest possible tinned food and the grimmest lodgings. His more recent girlfriend has left him. Professional standards officers are after him, as are organized criminals who want him either to run their operations or to die in the most painful possible way. A new trial emerges from his past to bring yet more distress. How Macbride manages to make all this gloom and violence attractive is a mystery greater than any of the crimes he invents, but he does it brilliantly.
Fiona Barton’s first novel, The Widow, also deals in trauma and distress but from a quite different point of view. She has journalist Kate Waters trying to find out how much Jean Taylor knew about her late husband’s murderous paedophilia. Kate is absolutely credible, which is not surprising given that Barton was herself a journalist for many years, but Jean’s mixture of naiveté and intelligence didn’t always convince me. Passive worms do turn, of course, but the woman who emerges from the first-person narrative seems unlikely to have behaved as Jean did throughout her marriage. Nevertheless The Widow has all the easy-reading, high tension many readers like.
David Mark’s female characters in Dead Pretty are an interesting bunch and he gives the impression of a man who both knows and likes women in life as well as in fiction. Best of all is the wife of DS Aector McAvoy. Young, flamboyant, a firmly effective mother and amazingly brave, Roisin brings warmth and colour to the awfulness of life in Hull. Once again we are presented with dead girls and a serial killer and, once again, these are the least interesting aspects of this fast-moving novel. Mark reveals the full misery of life at the bottom of the heap in many tiny scenes. In one, a woman explains why she would never wear a hooded top when taking a bus: she never knows what disgusting things other passengers might drop into her hood as it hangs down her back.
Alex Marwood looks at a quite different stratum of society in The Darkest Secret, which deals with the loss of one of the three-year-old twin daughters of a successful property developer. Sean has achieved great wealth, many marriages, and a coterie of unpleasant so-called friends. When he dies, the pact that has joined them all together since the evening when Coco disappeared comes under increasing strain. The astonishing selfishness of the gang of adults and the brutality of the emotional punishment they allow to be visited on the innocent are breathtaking – and all too distressingly credible. This novel has great energy and none of the clamminess that can mar novels about lost or dead children.