November Crime Round-Up

N.J. Cooper

Little Liar by Lisa Ballantyne

Published by Piatkus

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Skin Deep by Liz Nugent

Published by Penguin Ireland

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The Rumour by Leslie Kara

Published by Bantam

Shell Game by Sara Paretsky

Published by Hodder & Stoughton UK/Wm Morrow US

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Newcomer by Keigo Higashino

Published by Little, Brown UK/Minotaur US

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The difficult triangular relationship between adoring father and daughter and the sidelined mother forms the basis of two of this month’s most interesting novels.  Lisa Ballantyne’s Little Liar concerns the overweight, angry, unhappy 12-year-old Angela.  She lives with her mother, idolizes her absent father, brutalizes her school friends and has ceased to be the clever creative star pupil of her primary school years.  When she accuses her drama teacher, Nick Dearn, of sexually molesting her the police swing into action.  Nick has an idyllic home life with his sexy Spanish wife, Ava (who teasingly calls him ‘a little liar’), and their two children.  When the police arrest Nick, everything about his marriage and parenthood is ripped open and questioned.

The narrative is divided between the families and reveals every aspect of the damage this kind of case does to everyone involved.  The truth of what has been happening is pretty clear from early on, but the novel works because of the psychologically convincing character studies and the battles the family members have to fight with their own preconceptions, loyalties, fears, and impulses.

Liz Nugent’s Martin O’Flaherty is a quite different father from Angela’s.  A violent moody fisherman on a small island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, he treats his daughter, Delia, like a queen-in-waiting and blames her mother or brothers for anything that goes wrong in her life.  Escaping a disaster that engulfs the rest of her family, Delia moves away from the island and Skin Deep traces her astonishingly selfish life as she tramples over everyone and everything that gets in her way.  It’s not clear whether Nugent is presenting her as the product of savagely terrible parenting or in some way ‘evil’, as other characters suggest.  I was not convinced by the psychology of several characters in this novel, unlike those of Lisa Ballantyne’s, but it has pace and incident and a satisfactorily vengeful ending.

The primary relationship in Lesley Kara’s impressive first novel, The Rumour, is between a mother and her adult daughter living close to each other in a seaside town in Essex.  Jo, who works for an estate agent, has recently moved to the town to be close to her divorced mother and to provide a safer environment for her mixed-race child, Alfie.  She is horrified to hear a rumour that a notorious child murderer now lives in the area under an assumed name.  Jo passes on the rumour, as a way of getting closer to the women she hopes will become her friends, and then suffers agonies of guilt as suspicion falls on first one individual and then another.  The truth is both shocking and convincing.

Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawksi has never had children of her own and has always fought to resist the claimsher extended family make.  But they still keep coming to her.  This time it is Dr Lotte Herschel’s great nephew who needs her help when he becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.  At the same time a niece of her own ex-husband begs her help in a missing-persons case.  The two enquiries soon mesh and V. I. performs her familiar miracles of endurance, generosity and deduction to make one small part of Chicago safe again for those who have been unfairly victimized by the various villains.  This is a good contribution to a terrific series.

Family dynamics lie at the heart of Keigo Higashino’s Newcomer, in which Detective Kyoichiro Kaga of the Tokyo Police must investigate the murder of a woman found strangled in her apartment.  The novel is told in nine parts, each about one group of Kaga’s possible witnesses or suspects.  Few of the characters in one group know anything about any of the others, and it takes time for the reader to work out the connections between them and the case.  But the story is well constructed and offers a gentle puzzle of a mystery, which also provides an engaging introduction to Japanese life.

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