February Crime Round-Up

N. J. Cooper

Emma In the Night by Wendy Walker

Published by HQ UK/ St Martin’s Press US

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The Wife by Alafair Burke

Published by Faber & Faber UK/ Harper US

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The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Published by Macmillan

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Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Published by Little, Brown UK/ Flatiron US

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London Rules by Mick Herron

Published by John Murray UK/ Soho Crime US

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One theme that has emerged from this month’s reading is the way the powerless have to resort to manipulation to defend themselves against those who use their superior strength to control or terrorize their victims.

Wendy Walker’s second novel, Emma in the Night, deals with two sisters who disappeared from their unhappy family home in their teens.  Now one has returned with terrible stories of abduction and imprisonment, begging the police to find her sister with the few clues she collected during her risky escape.  Their mother has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and clearly gave them both a hard upbringing, but their inevitable sibling rivalry adds an extra twist to the account of their childhood.  Walker gives more explanations of the personality disorder than is necessary, and I was not absolutely convinced by the degree of manipulation the returning daughter requires to get her story heard by those who can sort out the mess, but this is an interesting psychological crime novel.

Alafair Burke’s lead character, Angela Powell, has a tragic history and too many secrets to defend.  She has constructed a life that has worked well for her and her son, Spencer, until her husband is accused of sexually assaulting an intern in his office.  More, and worse, accusations follow, while Angela fights for her marriage, her son, and her security.  Burke is a subtle writer, with a clear insight into damaged and damaging people.  Her juggling of past and present narratives is impeccable, and The Wife is both moving and frightening in its portrayal of the struggle to survive.

The joint authors of The Wife Between Us are themselves expert in the arts of manipulation, leading the reader into making all kinds of false assumptions in this novel about the wives of Richard, a hedge-fund manager.  We learn a lot about the gulf between the excessively rich and the just-about managing in New York.  We are introduced to the temptations of money and offers of safety, of the dangers of jealousy and insidious fear as details of Richard’s marriages are judiciously revealed.  This is clever and fast-moving, and it’s no surprise that the film rights have been bought by Steven Spielberg’s production company.

Jane Harper had enormous success with her first novel, The Dry, which is set in a small Australian town during an energy-sapping drought.  She has followed that very male- centred novel with one about women undergoing a horrible team-building exercise out in the bush.  Aaron Falk, the federal police agent from The Dry, is here again, trying to establish what happened to one of the five women, who has disappeared.

Harper has divided her novel into two strands, one of Falk’s investigation and the other of the women’s hike before Alice left them, as their confidence is sapped by cold and wet and their personalities clash with disastrous results.  The idea that anyone in business could send a group of office-based staff out into the bush for several days, even with maps and instructions and food and water to carry, seems extraordinary.  The dangers are severe, even before the women’s own problems and enmities are stirred into the mix.  But it makes for an ingenious thriller.

Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb is a character as far removed from any of these manipulative women as it is possible to imagine, except in his way of dealing with those who have power over him and the denizens of his small office at Slough House.  These are the MI5 officers who have screwed up so badly that they have been sent to Lamb’s outfit to be bored into resignation by mind-numbing, pointless administrative tasks, so saving the service from redundancy pay and unwelcome publicity.  As usual, they become involved in a live operation and need all Lamb’s brilliant manipulation to save the day.

This time computer-whiz and sexual fantasist Roddy Ho is the key figure in a complex plot.  Herron sets up a nightmare earworm with his rewriting of the Robin Hood theme song:  Roddy Ho, Roddy Ho, riding through the glen/Roddy Ho, Roddy Ho, manliest of men.  Reluctantly attempting to save their unpopular colleague, the other Slow Horses cause their usual mayhem, with the inscrutable and traumatized J.K.Coe revealing a little more of himself, before Lamb leans on the powerful and saves the day again.  Funny, angry, and at times very dark, London Rules reveals secret and political worlds that are more like the Augean Stables than anything else.

Mick Herron has had a slow-burning career, which is now justifiably blazing.

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