Allison & Busby,
The Black Box
It's reasonable to assume that most people are in favour of fairness, justice and the rule of law, which is one reason why crime/ mystery writing is the most popular of literary genres. It's also why the genre is considered essentially conservative in nature. Most crime novels tend to conclude with the reaffirmation of the status quo, a conclusion that chimes with our understanding of history's narrative, in which – simplistically put – the forces of good triumph over those of evil.
Stuart Neville's debut novel, The Twelve (2009), dug beneath the headlines of the Peace Process to explore the complexities involved in maintaining the essential fictions of Northern Ireland's post-'Troubles' era. His subsequent offerings, Collusion (2011) and Stolen Souls (2012), make up a loose trilogy of Belfast-set novels, but his latest, Ratlines, is set in the South, in 1963. With John F Kennedy's visit imminent, a number of former Nazis domiciled in Ireland have been murdered. The Minister for Justice, Charles Haughey, commissions Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the Irish military's G2 section to investigate, but Haughey, friend and protector of the notorious Nazi commando Otto Skor-zeny, may have one or two skeletons dancing in his own closet.
Haughey and Skorzeny play major roles in Ratlines, with other historical figures also appearing as minor characters, but Neville isn't simply invoking their names for the sake of colourful verisimilitude. The novel is framed as a conventional paranoid thriller, employing the swift pace and switchback reversals of fortune the genre demands, but there is a significant breadth and depth to the historical context that gives the story real heft. How moral was the Irish position of neutrality during 'the Emergency', aka the Second World War? How was that morality compromised by subsequent Irish governments' laissez-faire attitude to former Nazis settling in the Ireland in the decades following the war? What kind of status quo was Ireland happy to maintain in the 1950s and 1960s? Are we entitled to ignore the skeletons that dance in the nation's closet and still consider ourselves one of the good guys?
Neville isn't necessarily in the business of rewriting Irish history, but in the character of the callow Albert Ryan, himself an ex-British soldier, he does offer us an alternative way of looking at our recent past. The result is a powerful thriller which provides the requisite thrills and spills, but also a thought-provoking exploration of our understanding of who we really are.
Ruth Dudley Edwards' Killing the Emperors features her series heroine Baroness Ida 'Jack' Troutbeck, the self-declared doyenne of the politically incorrect and a woman who has made it her life's mission to skewer society's sacred cows. The novel opens with Jack declaring war on what she believes to be the latest manifestation of 'cultural idiocy', that of contemporary conceptual art as represented by famous names such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
No sooner has she done so, however, than Jack disappears, along with a number of the British art world's movers and shakers. While Jack's friends rush to discover her whereabouts, the reader discovers that she has been incarcerated in a Big Brother-style house, along with a number of artists, curators, critics and buyers, by a disgruntled Russian oligarch who has been badly stung in the art market. Murders soon follow, and it's up to Jack to negotiate a way out of her post-modern hell.
It's a blackly comic set-up for a crime tale, but Dudley Edwards is less interested in creating a conventional mystery as she is in building a soap box. Essentially, Killing the Emperors – as the title suggests – is a lengthy polemic against the absurdities of modern conceptual art, with Jack declaring, as Chapter One opens: "I used to want to kill the talentless so-called artists ... but now I want instead to fill the tumbrils with the critics, the dealers, the curators, and all the rest of the charlatans and dunderheads peddling trash in the name of contemporary art."
That's more of a mission statement than it is a traditional opening 'hook' to a mystery novel, but Dudley Edwards makes no apologies for the fact that she is exploiting the framework of a mystery novel to rewrite recent art history. The result is an atypical addition to the genre, a refreshingly subversive and frequently hilarious challenge to the status quo.
The Black Box, Michael Connelly's 18th novel to feature LAPD detective Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch, opens in 1992 during the LA riots that were sparked by the acquittal of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King. In the midst of the anarchy, Bosch is one of four police officers called in by a National Guard detachment that has discovered the body of a young woman in an alleyway. Bosch quickly establishes that the woman, who has been executed with a single shot to the head, is a Danish journalist called Anneke Jespersen. Unable to achieve much more due to the ongoing riots, Bosch makes his report and moves on to the next case. Twenty years later, a bullet casing from a recent crime links to the murder of Jespersen. Now working cold cases, Bosch reopens the investigation, hoping to find the 'black box' – the crucial piece of evidence that will unlock the case.
The Black Box is another novel steeped in recent history, as Bosch's endeavours quickly reveal that Jespersen's murder was connected to a war crime committed during the first Gulf War. Connelly's take on that history is a subtle but rewarding one. Always a politically contentious figure, Bosch yet again finds himself at odds with his superiors when they suggest, rather ominously, that it would rebound very badly on the LAPD if the first cold case to be solved from the LA riots was that of a white woman. Bosch isn't trying to rewrite history, and nor is he trying to invent a politically acceptable narrative. He is simply, doggedly attempting to achieve a semblance of justice on behalf of a dead woman, regardless of the personal or professional cost. It's a story that's as old as the genre itself, but Connelly's skill is such that it all feels entirely fresh and vibrant, but heartbreakingly poignant too.
Declan Burke is a journalist and author. His latest novel is 'Slaughter's Hound' (Liberties Press)