Danger is a good teacher, Hazlitt said, and there are some hard lessons to be learned from this month’s peril-filled selection of mystery novels.
by Don Winslow city on fire (HarperCollins, £20) sports a myriad of sources of threat. Set in 1980s Rhode Island, longshoreman Danny Ryan is a loving family man who is reluctantly willing to employ heavy-handed tactics for the Irish crime syndicate that runs Providence. When, in a Homeric plot, a young woman provokes a bloody war between rival gangs, Danny is plunged into an incendiary situation that will endanger both his family and his friends.
Many would now describe Winslow as one of the masters of American detective writing, and this remarkable novel – delayed from its original publication date because of Covid – is both breathtakingly panoramic and endlessly focused. Winslow certainly takes his time, but the rewards are manifold.
It’s hard to keep up with the current pace of British mystery novelists. Among the most talented? Harriet Tyce, whose It ends at midnight (Wildfire, £16.99) is a finely crafted piece of writing about psychological crime.
Midnight approaches at an upmarket New Year’s Eve party in Edinburgh, but one of the attendees thinks of murder rather than Auld Lang Syne. Tess, seriously ill, is present at the party; she hopes to renew her vows with her ex-husband and calls on her sixth-grade friend, Sylvie. But the two women are soon faced with a crushing legacy of guilt – not to mention an individual full of vengeful hatred. Characterization and narrative drive come together impeccably in Tyce’s tense story.
An equally adroit writer is Gillian McAllister, whose Wrong place, wrong time (Michael Joseph, £14.99) chains groundhog day with an endlessly re-enacted murder, as a woman’s lowly son kills a stranger – over and over again. The familiar plot motif receives a nondescript reset, and McAllister ensures that characterization is as essential to the novel’s success as plot.
Is Deon Meyer the most accomplished South African crime novelist in the history of the genre? The dark flood (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) is further proof of this claim. Originally written in Afrikaans but translated – with usual aplomb – by KL Seegers, Meyer’s determined detectives Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido are demoted (after an ill-advised outing in Cape Town) to warrant officers in the city neighbor of Stellenbosch. As they investigate the disappearance of a computer assistant, their own issues (such as Benny’s struggle with alcoholism) jeopardize the investigation. More Afrikaans than usual were left behind in this era, but Meyer fans won’t mind persevering: every word deserves its place, and there’s no limit to the usual nuanced critique of South African politics.
Readers who took the trip aboard the Japanese bullet train in Kotaro Isaka’s high-energy novel of the same name may find that Isaka’s new book, Three Assassins (Harvill Secker, £14.99, translated by Sam Malissa), is a less exhilarating experience – but it still offers an unusual journey. The eponymous killers – along with a man bent on revenge for his wife’s death – are engaged in a dance of death, with a variety of ghosts in the mix. The bizarre interactions in this deadly community are just as surreal as in the previous book, but the novelty of High-speed train is absent.
I hope Lindsey Davis doesn’t object to being called a veteran writer of historical crime fiction. After all, there’s no denying that – in the realm of shenanigans in ancient Rome, at least – she’s seen all her peers over the years, like Desperate business (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) reminds us of that once again. The new Odeon and Emperor Domitian’s new stadium are soaked in blood after artistically staged murders, and Flavia Albia (daughter of enduring detective Falco de Davis) is tasked with finding out why the theatrical community is under siege. As always, Davis transports us to a beautifully realized ancient world full of compelling detail. Who cares that there were no detectives in Rome in the first century?
Among the legions of “Scandibrits” – British writers who established their work in the Nordic countries – Will Dean is first among equals – but first born (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) finds him dropping out of Sweden to powerful effect. Identical twins Molly and Katie live an ocean apart, in London and New York respectively. Molly is the restrained and nervous sister, while Katie is adventurous and outgoing. But when Molly learns that her brother has died, she tries to pinpoint Katie’s last movements and finds her own life in danger. As well as providing the tension required of the thriller genre, Dean tackles issues of personal identity and family responsibility, proving he doesn’t need Swedish forests to recharge his creative batteries.
Finally, second in a new adventure for the artist formerly known as Anya Lipska. Perpetuity by AK Turner (Zaffre, £8.99) trades in the social concerns of his earlier work again to follow Cassie Raven, a highly successful mortuary technician. Raven’s affinity with death is tested when her own father, convicted of her mother’s murder, is released from prison and hopes to persuade his daughter of her innocence. This is a quiet insurance forensic thriller, and Cassie is a distinctive, authoritatively directed protagonist.
Barry Forshaw is the author of ‘Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide’
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