Published by John Murray UK/Soho Crime US
The Ex by Alafair Burke
Published by Faber & Faber UK/Harper US
Black Widow by Christopher Brookmyre
Published by Little Brown UK/Atlantic Monthly US
Published by The Borough Press UK/Random House US
Hollow Men by Rob McCarthy
Published by Mulholland Books UK/Pegasus US
If there are only seven plots in all fiction, as some claim, I occasionally think there are fewer than half that in crime. I can find pleasure in examining the way different writers use the same few ingredients, but I sometimes experience a powerful internal scream as I turn the first pages of yet another account of child-kidnap or a serial-killer hunt. When I find a brilliant, witty, dark, original writer, whose novel grips from page one, that scream turns into shrieks of delight.
Mick Herron was shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the first of his Slough House series, Slow Horses. He won the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger for the second, Dead Lions, and he has now published the third – and best yet – Real Tigers. Slough House is a dingy outpost of MI5 on the fringes of the City of London and it serves as punishment for spies who have ruined operations or irritated the powerful. They are sent to Slough House to be bored into submission by endlessly repetitive administrative tasks. But in their dysfunctional way they become sucked into live operations all over again, show up the corruption of the establishment, and use their multifarious physical and intellectual talents in the battle to save the day. The characters, from hero River Cartwright to sociopath and sexual-fantasist Roddy Ho, will live in my memory; the jokes kept me smiling for days; the style aroused my admiration; the anger underpinning the plot invigorated me. I can’t wait for the next in the series.
One theme that links several of this month’s novels is the way the internet has killed privacy while, at the same time, providing a means to hide the truth by anyone who wants to manipulate his or her victims. Alafair Burke has created defence lawyer Olivia Randall to lead The Ex, an engaging novel in which her old lover Jack Harris is arrested for the murder of three people. Olivia’s intellect can deal with any amount of legal obfuscation and injustice, but her emotional life is a mess. Longing to trust Jack and save him, she is led further and further into suspicion. She’s an appealing character and her battles with herself are as intriguing as those with outside forces.
Christopher Brookmyre has dropped the jokiness of his early novels in Black Widow, which sees his journalist Jack Parlabane investigating Diana Jager, whose husband is missing presumed drowned after his car plunged into a river. Diana is a surgeon, detested by most of her colleagues since she was revealed as the author of a bitterly angry blog about sexism and mismanagement in her profession. Brookmyre leads his readers through her recent past, when she discovered love and marriage after years of unhappiness, on to the car crash and beyond. He is a seriously clever writer and pushes us into trusting first one character and then the next, echoing Burke’s thesis that it is impossible for any of us to know the truth about each other without real evidence rather than the stuff provided online. I enjoyed this novel a lot more than its comic predecessors.
Susie Steiner also has a missing-presumed-dead character at the heart of her investigation. Here DS Manon Bradshaw, whose emotional life is as unsatisfactory as Olivia Randall’s, is involved in the search for the academic daughter of an influential man. Manon’s superiors are haunted by an earlier case in which they did not take a disappearance seriously enough and were lambasted when they discovered their misper had been murdered. This time they go all out in the hunt for a body. But the novel is much more about loneliness than about murder. Manon’s inability to find love is reflected in the lives of many of her colleagues and various victims’ families. Sometimes over-written, Missing Presumed examines the difficulty of making and maintaining relationships in our fractured world.
The crime at the centre of Rob McCarthy’s powerful first novel, The Hollow Men, has been used by many writers before him, but his take on it is unusual and therefore interesting. His hero is Harry Kent, a junior doctor worn into exhaustion by overwork, PTSD from his time in Afghanistan, the amphetamines he needs to keep going, memories of his tough childhood, and the agony he sees in his work with the police as an FME, a Force Medical Examiner. McCarthy’s ultimate villain will be quickly identifiable to anyone who has read much crime fiction, but the strength of this novel lies in the main character and his relationships, and in the recreation of life in a frantic central-London hospital. The best crime fiction makes readers look at the world in new ways, while also giving them enjoyable distraction from it. McCarthy does both.