Friday 17 November 2017

The dark heart of modern crime fiction

The latest crop of crime novels demonstrates that a story doesn't need to wallow in sickening brutality in order to keep the reader gripped

Jane Casey, the author of gripping new crime chiller 'Let The Dead Speak'
Jane Casey, the author of gripping new crime chiller 'Let The Dead Speak'

Eilis O'Hanlon

There are just as many cliches in contemporary crime fiction as there ever were in the Golden Age of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. They're just different ones.

These days, for example, it's a given that any wealthy, Oxbridge-educated right-wing politician will turn out to be a blackguard. There's one of this ilk in Sirens, the first novel from Joseph Knox, a former crime book buyer for Waterstones, whose debut was snapped up after a 10-way auction. The book is set in Manchester, though the city is never named, with its various parts titled after albums by local band Joy Division. Their fractured, tortured music is a clue to the novel's flavour.

The narrative bears many similarities to the work of Raymond Chandler, only with added drug abuse, as a troubled undercover cop finds himself in danger when he takes on the task of tracking down a runaway teenage girl, a journey that leads Aidan Waits deep into the city's bleak nocturnal heart. There were times when Sirens felt more like Trainspotting than Farewell, My Lovely.

The book wallows in that Chandleresque romance of squalor, and its poetry of disappointment and failure, which can verge into sentimentality, as the hero constantly fights to preserve his integrity against what feels like inevitable corruption, and it's always dark and wet ("Tonight it was sheet rain, catching the light and cleaning down the streets. They needed it").

The story never adds up to more than the sum of its parts, if truth be told, and there are no great twists. Everyone is so manifestly unpleasant that whatever they do doesn't really come as a surprise, but it has a gritty authenticity that carries the narrative along.

There's another politician in The Ninth Grave too, though he hails from Sweden and comes to a much more grisly end. He's not the only one. On the same day that he goes missing, a TV presenter's wife in neighbouring Denmark is murdered. Are the two cases connected?

Well, of course they are. This is a crime novel. Everything is invariably connected, however implausibly.

What links them here is a fairly standard revenge motive whose pay off doesn't entirely justify the investment needed to plough through what is a very long book. There are too many characters to keep proper track of, and the ending is unhinged; but it's the sadism, an increasing feature of modern thrillers, that really disturbs.

At one point, a character muses that "she couldn't shake the images of all the mutilated female bodies with their shredded genitalia, slashed throats and lifeless gazes that looked like they had been thrown like garbage on the floor of a slaughterhouse", and many readers will know exactly how she feels by the time they finish the book.

There's also a lot of sex, and its juxtaposition with so much graphic violence makes for an uneasy mix. One warning for admirers of so-called "Nordic noir": this is Stefan Ahnhem's second novel to be released in English after Victim Without A Face, though confusingly it was actually the first to be published in his native Sweden, where the author is a scriptwriter for Wallander.

Two London-based police procedurals offer a break from the gruesomeness. In Let The Dead Speak, Irish writer Jane Casey's seventh novel about murder squad detective Maeve Kerrigan, a girl returns home to find her mother gone and the house covered in blood, which is never a good sign; whilst Sarah Hilary's Quieter Than Killing, gives her own regular character, Detective Inspector Marnie Rome, a fourth outing as she investigates a series of attacks committed by a vigilante who appears to be targeting those who previously evaded justice. Meanwhile, the current tenants of the detective's family home have been hospitalised by a gang of youths. Again, the age-old question: is there a connection? Again, the age-old answer: unequivocally so.

Rome's parents were murdered in the same house six years ago by her adopted brother. The theme is a familiar one of how the past lingers and never really goes away, and about who's really culpable for terrible crimes.

Both books are solidly written by authors who care enough about police procedure to want to get details right, which is rarer than it should be in an age of shock and awe, and detectives Kerrigan and Rome remain as well rounded, sympathetic and believable as ever, making the pressures under which they're put in the course of duty all the more involving.

The Break Down by BA Paris is the follow up to the France-based writer's hugely successful debut psychological thriller, Behind Closed Doors.

Driving home through the woods late one night, in the middle of a violent storm, Cass passes a car parked on the road. She stops, thinking the driver might need help, but, when the woman in the car doesn't respond, Cass assumes all is well and continues on her way home.

Over the coming days, she discovers that the woman, far from being fine, was in fact brutally murdered. Worse than that, it was someone that Cass knew. She decides to keep her secret to herself, and that, together with the guilt she feels that things might have been different if she'd done more, begins to take its toll.

Cass is doing things she can't remember doing; she's becoming paranoid, convinced somebody is watching her; her relationship with her husband, Matthew, begins to fray. She's receiving silent calls on the telephone. What is real and what is imagined?

Like Paris's first book, this is a fast-paced, tense thriller designed to keep a reader eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next and how the various mysteries will be resolved.

If at times it feels that the middle of the book has too much of the same stuff happening at the expense of the plot moving along, that's only a small gripe in what is, overall, a hugely accomplished and satisfying story which needs no sensational shocks or gore to deliver its effects.

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