Saturday 21 September 2019

Villainous deeds cast a shadow on summer sun

Crime fiction is a thrillingly dynamic genre, and Eilis O'Hanlon rounds up the best of the latest suspects - from Thomas Harris to Val McDermid

Image taken from the cover of ‘Crime and Justice’ comic, #21, published in 1954
Image taken from the cover of ‘Crime and Justice’ comic, #21, published in 1954

Eilis O'Hanlon

A new novel by the author of The Silence of the Lambs is always a publishing event. When it also happens to be the first since Thomas Harris's 1975 debut not to feature his most famous creation, Hannibal Lecter, it is even more noteworthy.

Sadly, Cari Mora (William Heinemann €25.99) doesn't live up to the promise of its predecessors. Harris's new villain, Hans Peter Schneider, rents a home in Miami once owned by drug lord Pablo Escobar. He's looking for missing gold, but also has a sideline in trafficking women and removing various organs.

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The book cranks the Grand Guignol dial up to 11, with a series of episodes which seem designed only to revolt the reader, harking back to a time in crime fiction when the serial killer was king, and the more depraved and unusual the better. Crime fiction has moved on to a better place.

There's more room for psychological nuance these days rather than crude shock value. That is nowhere better illustrated than in Jo Baker's The Body Lies (Doubleday, €10.32). The description "literary crime fiction" is much over-used these days, but it fits this new offering perfectly.

A thirty-something woman gets a job in a remote university as a creative writing teacher, and a student promptly starts sending her chapters from his new novel. She recognises herself as the main character, only to realise he may have something not particularly pleasant planned for her.

The book touches cleverly on the ways in which women are portrayed and victimised in the pages of popular fiction. It is unsettling and original, lingering in the memory where so many crime books barely scratch its surface.

Those People by Louise Candlish (Simon & Schuster, €12.74) is about another age-old theme, the dark side of suburbia. It has a brilliant premise. Nightmare neighbours move into a cul de sac and start disrupting all and sundry with their messy, noisy lifestyles. Violence follows and the police want to know who's responsible. The perfect, friendly, middle-class neighbours all say it was them. It's a clever twist on Hercule Poirot's ingenious solution to the central mystery in Murder on the Orient Express.

Buried secrets lie at the heart of all the best crime fiction. The Marriage Betrayal by Shalini Boland (Bookouture, €9.94) has a classic set-up in that respect. Faye and her family are spending a tetchy summer in the small English seaside town where her husband grew up, and things quickly go from bad to worse as he takes their son for a walk one day and doesn't come back, forcing the realisation she didn't know as much about him as she thought.

Domestic noir, as it's known, still seems to be as popular as ever, and Boland, whose previous novels bear archetypically intriguing titles such as The Secret Mother and The Perfect Family, is one of the leading proponents.

Shari Lapena is another doyenne of the genre and her latest offering, Someone We Know (Bantam Press, €12.99), dives right back into the dark depths of middle-class society, as an anonymous note is left at the doors of various residents of a leafy suburb to tell them someone has been breaking into their homes as they sleep. What starts out as unease soon escalates to murder. What secrets would the most ordinary-seeming person fear might be exposed if someone got access to their lives?

Adam Southward's Trance (Thomas & Mercer, €27.99) is the first in a planned series of novels featuring Alex Madison, a former forensic psychologist turned private therapist, and concerns a prisoner with an apparent ability to compel victims to commit suicide. The search for answers brings Madison into contact with a secret research programme; some readers have found it far-fetched which, to be fair, it is. But it more than makes up in sheer scariness what it loses in plausibility.

Claire McGowan is a Northern Irish writer whose recent BBC Radio Four mystery serial, Blackwater, showed her versatility as a scriptwriter as well as a novelist. She's back this month with a new book, What You Did (Thomas & Mercer, €22.13), which follows the unravelling of a reunion between six university friends when one woman accuses another's husband of rape. Who is Ali, a committed feminist involved in her local women's refuge, meant to believe?

There's nothing particularly ground breaking here, but it's solid storytelling that engrosses from first page to last.

Conviction by Scottish writer Denise Mina (Harvill Secker, €20.99) makes effective use of humour in its story of a woman, abandoned by her husband, who becomes obsessed with a true crime podcast and slowly realises her own past may point to the solution to the mystery. This fresh, zeitgeisty novel deserved to be much more noticed on its recent release.

Adding to the bumper season of compelling new crime fiction, are two queens of the genre who are both releasing novels on the same day next month. First there is the 11th book featuring clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan, by Val McDermid. How the Dead Speak (Little, Brown, €21) begins with the discovery of human remains in an abandoned convent and escalates from there. Irish readers will detect obvious echoes of recent news events.

The second book, The Dirty Dozen (Zaffre, €18.20), is by Lynda Le Plante of Prime Suspect fame. This goes back to the 1980s, when Jane Tennison was with the London Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad, the Sweeney, desperate to prove to chauvinistic male officers she is more than a match for them when it comes to tackling a series of armed robberies in the East End.

Last, but definitely not least, there is Bunny by Mona Awad (Penguin, €21), author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which is a brilliant, utterly unique peek into the dark side of female friendship. Part thriller, part horror, part teen drama, it's like Mean Girls with added menace, and impossible not to relish.

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