Tuesday 16 January 2018

Review: All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley, The Black Path by Asa Larsson and The Last Girl by Jane Casey

W&N, £18.99, MacLehose Press, £18.99, Ebury Press, £12.99

PLAUSIBLE: Jane Casey,
has a third novel about Maeve
Kerrigan, London-born to Irish
PLAUSIBLE: Jane Casey, has a third novel about Maeve Kerrigan, London-born to Irish parents.

Unconventional protagonists are at the heart of some of this summer's most interesting crime fiction novels, all of which offer an arresting take on the culture from which they spring.

The fourth in Walter Mosley's most recent series of novels, All I Did Was Shoot My Man (W&N, £18.99) features New York private investigator Leonid McGill, whose guilt at framing a young woman for a multi-million robbery some years previously leads him to give her a helping hand when she finally emerges from prison.

Unfortunately for McGill, and everyone around him, those who paid for the young woman to be framed are busy tying up loose ends. It's not long before McGill's perverse morality puts those he loves in mortal danger, a threat that McGill decides to meet head-on.

Walter Mosley has published in excess of 40 novels in total, the majority of them crime fiction. Perhaps he has exhausted all the conventional tropes of the genre, because All I Did Was Shoot My Man is a decidedly unconventional private eye novel, having much more in common with the playful meta-fiction of Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn than it does with the traditional gumshoe heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

An existentialist quality of self-questioning creates a mood of doubt as to whether any such notion as justice even exists; the fact that our tarnished knight, McGill, has set in train the lawlessness by breaking the law himself asks the reader to empathise with a character who neither deserves nor craves our respect or admiration.

Parallels can be drawn with John Banville's Freddie Montgomery or Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, and much of the fascination here lies between the lines as we strain to understand what it is that makes McGill tick, and whether we might recognise him in ourselves.

Told in the first person, the story comes to us filtered through the fever-dream prose of a McGill who is perhaps psychosomatically sickened by his own actions and their consequences. Elegant, laconic, complex and thought-provoking, All I Did Was Shoot My Man is one of the most intriguing crime fiction novels of the year so far.

Asa Larsson's The Black Path (MacLehose Press, £18.99) was published in her native Sweden two years before her breakthrough novel Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which was translated into English last year.

Her fourth novel in total to be published in English, The Black Path (translated by Marlaine Delargy) finds her series heroine, lawyer Rebecka Martinsson, taking something of a back seat as she recovers from a nervous breakdown. Police detective Anna-Maria Mella instead takes centre-stage, investigating the brutal murder of a wealthy woman whose body is discovered inside a fishing ark on a frozen lake in northern Sweden.

Mella discovers that Inna Wattrang is an executive with one of Sweden's most successful mining companies, an enterprise that specialises in prospecting in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

Has Wattrang's death anything to do with increased troop movements around a mine in central Africa? And why was she tortured to death in a macabre way? What can Wattrang's dissolute playboy brother, Diddi, tell Mella about his bizarre relationship with his sister? And does anyone really know the truth of how Wattrang's boss became the rags-to-riches multi-millionaire Mauri Kallis?

What emerges as Mella peels back the layers of her investigation is an entertaining mystery in the paranoid style. Money, power and politics lie at the dark heart of northern Sweden's pristine landscapes, the crisp snow a blank canvas on which Larsson -- one of her characters is an artist in the primitive mode -- slowly but surely joins the blood-stained dots.

While Mella is the main protagonist, the story unfolds courtesy of a number of characters' perspectives, with Rebecka Martinsson, Diddi Wattrang, Mauri Kallis and Mella's partner Stalnacke fleshing out the tale with their own versions of events.

All told, the novel is as dark in theme as the wintry landscapes are bleak, but Anna-Maria Mella -- a police detective, yes, but a compellingly plausible mother and wife, too -- provides sufficient light and warmth to guide even the most Scandi-sceptic reader through to the end.

Jane Casey's third Maeve Kerrigan novel, The Last Girl (Ebury Press, £12.99), opens with the London-based detective constable arriving to the scene of a murder in the upmarket neighbourhood of Wimbledon. The family of barrister Philip Kennford has been attacked; his wife and one of his daughters have been brutally slain, stabbed and slashed to death, although a second daughter, Lydia, has escaped the killer's frenzy. Kennford himself is discovered unconscious in his bedroom, bruised but otherwise unhurt. Naturally, suspicion falls on him, but things are nowhere as straightforward as they appear.

Jane Casey's previous two novels, The Burning (2010) and The Reckoning (2011), were both shortlisted in the crime fiction category at the Irish Book Awards. London-born to Irish parents, Maeve Kerrigan has personal as well as professional battles to fight in her workplace, holding her own as a young woman in a male-dominated squad, while also putting with up her colleagues' banter about her Irishness.

So far, so predictable, but what makes Maeve Kerrigan a fascinating and plausible character is her almost schizophrenic quality of an outwardly hard-nosed and competent police officer even as her self-doubts threaten to eat away her defences from the inside.

It helps, too, that Kerrigan's self-questioning is not related to her status or her chances of promotion; it is the possibility that she will fail the victims' families that plagues her, rather than any lack of professional momentum or loss of face with her peers.

Reminiscent of Lynda La Plante's Jane Tennison, she is less tough, perhaps, but more emotionally accessible. Sharp-eyed and empathic enough to spot the tiny but crucial detail missed by her male colleagues, she's also smart enough to pre-emptively mock the squad-room barbs about so-called 'female intuition'.

There is something quietly and enjoyably subversive about the character of Maeve Kerrigan. She is no superwoman, she lacks supernatural acuity, and she doesn't even have so much as a single dragon tattoo.

What she has is persistence, integrity and emotional intelligence, and a very deft way of insinuating herself into a reader's affections. The Last Girl won't be the last you'll be hearing of her.

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