September Crime Round-Up

N. J. Cooper

The Silence Between Breaths by Cath Staincliffe

Published by Constable

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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

Published by Sphere UK/Minotaur US

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The Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe

Published by Zaffre UK/Ballantine US

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Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

Published by Little Brown

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A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward

Published by Faber UK/Minotaur US

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Blind Sight by Carol O’Connell

Published by Headline UK/Putnam US

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For me the most important aspect of crime fiction is neither the crime nor the investigation:  it’s the characters, their psychology and the way their emotions affect their actions and vice versa.  Cath Staincliffe’s stand-alone novels are wonderful examples of the kind I most like, and her latest, The Silence Between Breaths, is particularly appealing.

Staincliffe offers no investigation at all, only a train carriage full of people, one of whom is a nervous young Muslim man with a backpack.  The way her other passengers assess their possible danger, weaving it in and out of their other preoccupations, offers a masterclass in how to create character and tension.  But this is not simply a thriller about a possible explosion; it is also a humane examination of how people behave under threats of all kinds.  Fast-moving and touching, this novel appeals on many different levels.

Louise Penny also examines the way individuals deal with threat in her latest Inspector Gamache novel.  He has left his investigative responsibilities behind to head up the Sûreté Academy, which has a dreadful reputation for bullying and corruption.  He has sacked most of the members of staff, while keeping on the erstwhile head, to many people’s surprise.

Gamache and his wife live in a most civilized way in a beautiful house, treating each other with respect and affection, acting as generous hosts to all comers, and eating many delicious meals.  But Gamache is no pushover and, faced with wickedness, he can act ruthlessly.  I’m not sure that I entirely believed in the wickedness on offer here, but I enjoyed watching its perpetrator’s comeuppance.

Camilla Grebe has written several crime novels with her sister, but The Ice Beneath Her is her first solo work.  It deals with the investigation of a murder in which a young woman is found beheaded in a rich man’s flat.  It also deals with the unlikely love affair of a young shop assistant and the unhappiness and fear of Hanne, once a consultant with the police, now living in a miserable marriage and with a new diagnosis of dementia:  ‘I can no longer trust my own body.  My intellect, my memory, is disintegrating, fragmenting into small, elusive crumbs that no longer join into any meaningful whole.’  Hanne is a wonderful character, and it is her struggles, her insights, her triumphs that make this novel the wholly satisfactory work it is.

Val McDermid tackles grief in Out of Bonds, as she portrays DCI Karen Pirrie getting to grips with life and work after the murder of her partner, DS Phil Parhatka.  Pirrie heads up the Historic Cases Unit and is presented with a possible lead into an old, unsolved rape and murder, when a teenage joyrider’s DNA is taken after an accident.  He is far too young to have been involved in the old case, but someone in his family was. Pirrie and her sidekick DC Jason Murray find their investigation far more complicated than they expect, and she has plenty of time to express her impatience with his slow brain and clumsy interactions with other people.  McDermid makes it clear that her heroine has some affection for ‘The Mint’ as well as contempt, but her grief leads her to treat him with considerable cruelty.

Sara Ward’s second novel, A Deadly Thaw, explores a quite different kind of cruelty and begins splendidly with the discovery of the freshly dead body of a man whose killer has just been released after serving twelve years in prison for his murder.  Once again, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the events revealed but I enjoyed its originality.

It is wonderful to have Carol O’Connell’s amazing Kathy Mallory back in circulation.  Mallory was the most original woman detective when she first appeared in 1994 with Mallory’s Oracle: a genius computer-hacker, with an eidetic memory, a lost tragic past, and a wholly amoral attitude to the world and its denizens.  Now, in Blind Sight, she is faced with the kidnap of a young boy, Jonah Quill, who has been blind since birth.  He is beautifully realized as he tries to make sense of his surroundings by means of sound, sensation, and memory.  A series of unlikely murders, a bunch of wholly corrupt politicians, and a dead nun with an intriguing past set Mallory off on one of her most exciting investigations so far.  She is a wonderful character and the hint of human weakness (or emotion) at the end of the novel gives her added depth.



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