October Crime Round-Up

N.J. Cooper

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Published by Orion

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Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves

Published by Macmillan UK/Minotaur US

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The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl

Published by OneWorld

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Penance by Kate O’Riordan

Published by Constable

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At a time when the world seems to be on the brink of melt-down, it is good to be reminded of the pleasure to be had from Golden Age crime fiction, in which order is restored and chaos banished by the brilliance of the eccentric sleuth.

Anthony Horowitz plays with many of the rules of the genre in Magpie Murders, a reader-teasing novel within a novel, which is both village mystery and publishing satire.  Introducing the novel is the first-person narrator, Susan Ryeland, who is the editor at Cloverleaf Press in charge of Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd crime series.  Conway’s sleuth is a concentration-camp survivor, who helps the police investigate murders in post-war England.

The typescript of Conway’s Magpie Murders has just been delivered and after Susan’s introduction of how this novel ‘changed my life’, we are given a large chunk of Conway’s text.  Set firmly in Midsomer Murders territory, the novel offers a horrible aristocrat in his big house, village fêtes, resentful housekeeper, dodgy vicar, lady doctor and so on.  Deaths occur and nearly everyone is presented as horrible, either deserving of murder or convincingly suspicious.

When Horowitz switches back to Susan’s story, she discovers that the last few chapters of Conway’s latest work are missing.  He is found dead with an unconvincing suicide note beside him, and she embarks on a journey of investigation and self-discovery.  Her decoding of Conway’s codes and sly hidden jokes offers many traditional detective pleasures, while the portrait of the book industry, full of real writers and publishers, is both funny and acute.

Magpie Murders is a clever, entertaining exploration of the genre, which also offers real suspense in both its narratives.

Ann Cleeves also provides much of the reassuring comfort of the Golden Age, in spite of the modernity of her plots and characters.  Readers can be sure as they embark on a new Shetland adventure that they are not going to be traumatized by gore and cruelty.  Murder there always is, and its physical and emotional effects are never downplayed, but there is no titillation here for horror-junkies.  Jimmy Perez is beginning to recover from the loss of Fran in Cold Earth and even to consider a new relationship.  But before he can concentrate on his own life he has to identify the body of an unknown woman revealed in an otherwise empty house during a landslip.

The island landscape and people are beautifully recreated, and the unfolding investigation reveals a great deal about family relationships thatgo wrong.  Cleeves has a warmly engaging, wise voice, and her knowledge of human nature is most gently offered.

Thomas Rydahl’s first novel, The Hermit, has had great – and deserved – success in his native Denmark.  Set in the Canaries, it features Erhard Jorgensen, a Danish exile working as a taxi-driver and piano-tuner.  He is an extraordinary creation:  in his seventies; living alone; short of one finger; fantasizing about sex, but more or less incapable of actual congress; friendly with a louche, rich young man; and caring for his two goats, Laurel and Hardy.  He is also a most intriguing mixture of the amoral and the high-principled.  When he learns that the police have paid a prostitute to admit responsibility for the corpse of a tiny starved baby boy, Jorgensen is outraged and determined to find the real woman who committed this atrocity.  His quest brings him up against all kinds of powerful interests, causes him enormous physical pain, and forces him into some atrocities of his own.

The Hermit is an excitingly written exploration of an unlikely but alluring character, and of the clashing worlds of greed and justice.  My only complaint is that, in the fashion of literary thrillers, the novel has no inverted commas.  Dialogue is introduced with a dash, which leads to paragraphs that confuse and so break the flow of the writing.  ‘ – OK, listen up, Bernal says. – If there’s anything at all, that you’re not telling us, you need to fess up now.  My colleague Hassib thinks you’re lying, that you’re hiding something.  He wanted to bring you in, but I vouched for you.  Bernal eyes Erhard as if it’s a question. – You need to tell me if there’s something we should know.’  This is a quite unnecessary fashion and an irritating one.

Kate O’Riordan’s Penance deals with grief and guilt.  Rosalie is trying to come to terms with the death of her son, Rob, in Thailand.  Her daughter, equally distressed and dangerously embroiled with a local gang, makes her life even more difficult, and her husband Luke can’t put anything right for any of them.  When they encounter Jed at a grief-counselling group, he transforms their lives.  A young man with an apparently instinctive ability to understand and to give comfort and confidence, he is soon at the centre of their lives.  But nothing is as it seems and Rosalie’s slow unravelling of the truth about her family and herself is engrossing.

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