Thursday 22 February 2018

A macabre thriller, demonic hero and picket-fence crime

Moskva, Jack Grimwood, Michael Joseph, hdbk, 480 pages, €16.99

The anti-hero: The House of Fame Oliver Harris's third novel.
The anti-hero: The House of Fame Oliver Harris's third novel.
The House of Fame

Jake Kerridge takes a look at three recent crime books.

Last year, the film version of Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's novel about a serial killer at large in Stalin's USSR, was banned in Russia; the culture minister Vladimir Medinsky claimed that it depicted the country as a kind of "Mordor" full of "physically and mentally inferior sub-humans". Medinsky is advised to avoid Jack Grimwood's thriller Moskva, set in the 1980s but portraying a country still so saturated in evil that it is only a couple of orcs away from fitting right into the nastiest reaches of Middle Earth.

The hero is Major Tom Fox, an army-chaplain-turned-intelligence-officer who is grieving for a dead daughter and has been sent to Moscow to keep out of trouble after causing a snafu in Northern Ireland. Attending a New Year's Eve party at the British embassy, he has an awkward encounter with the ambassador's teenage stepdaughter. Then she disappears, possibly kidnapped by the person who is littering Moscow with mutilated corpses.

A blizzard of exciting set pieces follows, most of which set Tom ruminating on his failings as soldier, father and human to the extent that sometimes his mazy back story seems more like a substitute for, than reflection of, a personality.

But he is a hero easy to root for and he meets plenty of more vivid characters on his travels, including a Georgian Mafioso and a borderline-insane ex-soldier who is pretty much the only person in the whole country he can trust.

This is the first thriller by Jack Grimwood, but as Jon Courtenay Grimwood he has long been one of our most-cherished science-fiction and fantasy writers.

Long years of practice in making the implausible plausible serve him well here, as his superbly realised portrayal of Moscow, with its "pharaonic" architecture commissioned by Stalin, helps to ground a melodramatic adventure in reality. But it is its macabre inventiveness that makes Moskva even better than Child 44.

The House of Fame, Oliver Harris, Jonathon Cape, hdbk, 336 pages, €16.99


Most crime writers try to make their books believable by keeping their characters embedded, like flies stuck in treacle, in reasonably plausible situations; but there are some characters who seem real only when they're involved in the most outlandish scenarios. One of these is Oliver Harris's DC Nick Belsey, who, if he hasn't found himself in an unlikely predicament by lunchtime, will go out and create one. Because Harris has pulled off the tricky task of portraying him in three dimensions, Belsey soars to greater heights as an imaginative creation than the more earthbound coppers found in most crime novels.

In Harris's first book, The Hollow Man (2011), Belsey crashed a police car while drunk, stole a murder victim's identity to get his hands on his cash, and broke into his superior's office to steal a letter from a police psychiatrist recommending his instant dismissal. There is no way that last scheme would have worked, but we're in Harris's London, where it seems all too likely: you cannot help but believe that Belsey's demonic chutzpah will bring him the devil's own luck.

But as Harris's third novel opens, Belsey is on the back foot for once; suspended from the Force while being investigated for gross misconduct, he has decided to go off-grid and is dossing down in his old police station in Hampstead, which has been closed thanks to cuts. Then an old woman comes knocking at the boarded-up doors in need of someone to go looking for her missing son, and Belsey agrees to help.

Harris has a rare ability to combine storytelling that has a freewheeling, improvisatory feel with a plot that has been long hours in the concocting. Belsey's ability to extract himself from tricky situations starts to border on the superheroic, but he has too much life in him ever to be in danger of turning cartoonish. He is fast becoming the best anti-hero in British crime fiction.

Orient, Christoper Bollen, Simon & Schuster, hdbk, 624 pages €24.99


The American author Christopher Bollen writes expansive, psychologically probing novels in the manner of Updike, Eugenides and Franzen, but he is also an avowed disciple of Agatha Christie. In his second novel, he has annexed the real-life hamlet of Orient, on the easternmost tip of the North Fork of Long Island, to turn it into an American equivalent of those picturesque Christie villages where murder is an aesthetic as well as a moral outrage.

In recent years, the real Orient has become the beauty spot of choice for the glitterati of the New York art world looking to buy a weekend retreat. Bollen's melodramatic twist on reality follows the pattern laid down by a score of Christie novels: the tensions between a community's long-standing residents and its incomers end up exploding in murder.

The bulk of the novel is told from the perspective of two characters: Beth, a failed artist warily slotting into the role of housewife and prospective mother, and Mills, a gay teenage tearaway who scandalises Orient's plentiful prudes. They team up to investigate when the town drunk, a notable rooter-out of his neighbours' secrets, is discovered drowned, and their suspicions of foul play are confirmed when Orient's other residents start dropping like ninepins.

As a brick-thick study of murder the small-town-American way, Orient will appeal to fans of Joël Dicker's bestseller The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. In my view, Bollen's is much the better novel, conveying far more effectively the claustrophobia of a community so stiflingly tight-knit that its residents might plausibly commit murder rather than have their peccadilloes exposed to the neighbours.

Bollen has some fun at the expense of the deer-hunting, brownie-baking, long-time residents of Orient, but manages not to patronise them. He reserves his sharpest irony for the arty types and their bizarrely remunerative installations: "Nathan's show, 'That which does not kill you tries again later', consisted of adorable rescue dogs let loose in a gallery… while video footage of a euthanasia facility played in the background." There is a grim plausibility to this that is lacking in, say, Tom Wolfe's recent clodhopping satires on the US art world.

While enjoying all this, the reader must not forget to watch out for clues. The novel's final pages reveal that, as was so often the case with Christie, the murderer has been carrying out a plan of wholly unbelievable intricacy, and though I don't mind being required to suspend my disbelief, I found my mental winch was a bit rusty after 600 pages of faultless realism. But, otherwise, the generic and literary pleasures of this novel sit well together and are of the highest order.

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