October Crime Round-Up

N. J. Cooper

The Blind by A .F. Brady

Published by HQ UK/ Park Row US

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Look for Her by Emily Winslow

Published by Allison & Busby UK/ William Morrow US

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To Kill the President by Sam Bourne

Published by Harper Collins

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The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

Published by Hodder & Stoughton UK/ Doubleday US

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Well of Ice by Andrea Carter

Published by Constable

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Law and mental health are inevitable aspects of the real world of criminal justice and so it’s no surprise that they form the core of much crime fiction.  This month’s selection has some good examples.   A. F. Brady’s first novel, The Blind, is unusual in that it does not deal with the investigation – or prevention – of murder.  The narrator is Dr Samantha James, a psychologist working at a rundown psychiatric unit in Manhattan.  Like so many others in the business of therapy, Sam has her own issues.  She is entirely aware of her condition but unable to deal with it – apart from trying to heal herself by healing others.   In spite of her self-destructive behaviour, Sam is an appealing character and the novel rattles along at a good pace, pointing up some problems that are as intractable in the UK as in the US.  Mental health is catastrophically under resourced and an easy target for government cost-cutting.  Practitioners need superhuman reserves of patience and can be as damaged as their clients.  Both can continue to pursue the behaviour that causes them most suffering even when they know that if they were to change they could be safer and happier.  This is an important – if at times horrible – novel with a well-signalled but moving twist.

Emily Winslow’s Look for Her opens with the inevitably self-obsessed outpourings of a young woman consulting Dr Laurie Ambrose of Cambridge University’s counselling service and explaining how she makes young men treat her kindly by pretending to have been raped and almost killed some years earlier.  She has based this fantasy on a real case, which coincidentally is being reinvestigated by retired detective Morris Keene with the help of DCI Chloe Frohmann, who is on maternity leave.   Carefully structured and told in the first person by each of these four characters, the novel is in danger of drowning in talk.  Every character has realistic emotional difficulties and family problems, and Winslow takes care to represent their various professional dilemmas accurately, but the novel is slow moving and short on tension.

Jonathan Freedland, writing as Sam Bourne, also deals with mental-health ethics in To Kill the President, when two senior White House officials are so horrified by the activities of their out-of-control new president in his conflict with North Korea that they turn to his doctor in an attempt to have him declared insane.  At the same time a much more lowly member of staff tries to find out what is going on and who the most dangerous people are.  This novel reveals plots and counterplots, treacheries old and new, and some very current threats.  Shocking in its implications, it is also great fun.  Freedland has always been able to deal with serious issues in a highly readable way and this novel is no exception.

John Grisham is another writer who can play lightly with serious matters.  The Rooster Bar tackles the exploitation of young people who are suckered into taking on enormous college debts to acquire qualifications that will never lead to the promised highly paid careers, as well as the horrors of life as an illegal immigrant, and the difficulty of getting any kind of justice if you are not rich or connected, both in first- and third-world societies.  A small group of law students in Washington DC decide to ignore their final exams and scoop up needy clients by hanging around the courts, pretending to be fully qualified.  Inevitably they’re rumbled, but their ingenuity gets them out of danger again and again.  Young as they are, they have to find a way to live out their lives in freedom from their several pursuers.  Grisham’s final twist is clever and leaves it to the reader to decide whether the punishment fits the crime.

Many lawyers make excellent crime writers and a relatively new member of the tribe is Andrea Carter, who has worked as both a solicitor and a barrister in Dublin.  The Well of Ice, her third novel, is an excellent example of the traditional mystery brought up to date with modern preoccupations.  Her narrator Ben (Benedicta) O’Keefe, is the solicitor in a small Irish town, negotiating a new love affair with the local sergeant and old horrors in the rape and manslaughter of her younger sister.  Past and present combine with all the interwoven conflicts, tragedies and delights of a small community to produce a moving – and exciting – well-observed account of crime, innocence, gullibility, and a determination to get things right.  Set during a particularly icy Christmas, this would be the ideal novel to read curled up in front of a good fire while storms rage outside.

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