One ray of light in these dispiriting times was a recent report from Nielsen BookScan estimating a 5.2 per cent rise in volume (and a 5.5 per cent by value) of UK book sales year-on-year in 2020. Lockdown reminded readers that books have a dual purpose — to inform and to entertain — and 2020 was a vintage year for intelligent crime fiction. So how is the field looking at the beginning of 2021?
To describe Jane Harper’s debut The Dry in 2017 as a publishing phenomenon is to understate the case; few novels glean the kind of praise that this outback-set drama accrued. But now that Harper is firmly ensconced as the leading Australian crime writer, does her latest novel (her fourth) follow suit?
The Survivors (Little, Brown, £14.99) has a new locale: no longer a scrubby outback but the Tasmanian coastal town of Evelyn Bay. Kieran, his wife Audrey and their baby arrive to help move his dementia-suffering father to a care home. The town has grim associations for Kieran — his brother died there while trying to save him during a storm. On that day a young woman vanished, and a new murder makes these unbidden memories all too pertinent in the present. The pace may be a touch steady for some, but, in pellucid prose, Harper takes on board corrosive issues of guilt, memory and responsibility. As ever with her, the luminously described setting becomes a character in its own right, with the climax accompanied by the swell of the waves.
Despite mutterings from established authors about the inefficacy of creative writing courses, defenders can point to conspicuous successes, such as Laura Shepherd-Robinson. Her first novel Blood and Sugar won the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown, and further proof that her course at London’s City University paid off may be found in Daughters of Night (Mantle, £14.99), almost equally accomplished (and similarly lengthy at nearly 600 pages).
London, 1782. In the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a prostitute with a prestigious client list is murdered. The nascent police department at Bow Street (in a precursor of the Yorkshire Ripper case) is not fully committed, given the victim’s profession — but Caroline Corsham (whom we met in the previous book), discovered the woman and is keen to see justice done. She is aided by thief-taker Peregrine Child. Robinson presents Georgian society as riddled with hypocrisy, setting the spiky interaction of her mismatched duo (Caro in particular is a gratifyingly multi-faceted character) against a persuasive historical backdrop. Robinson would be advised to clear her shelves for more awards.
The phrase “coals to Newcastle” might spring to mind when one encounters British novelists writing Scandinavian crime fiction, but in certain cases it is to be applauded — as with the talented Will Dean, who, in fact, lives in a Swedish forest. Dean’s previous books have had a Swedish setting, but with The Last Thing to Burn (Hodder, £12.99) he has relocated to an isolated East Anglian farm — carrying with him the dark Nordic sensibility that pervaded his earlier work. Can Thanh Dao escape her abusive husband, who is holding her captive? This is every bit as accomplished as Dean’s previous books, but its unrelenting narrative of spousal cruelty is not for the fainthearted.
Similar family horrors pervade Girl A by Abigail Dean (HarperCollins, £14.99). Dean’s heroine has escaped from her gruesome family environment. After a spell as a successful lawyer in the US, she returns to England and undertakes to convert the family home from a place of terror to a community centre. But this involves the co-operation of her fellow survivors of familial mistreatment. Dean’s novel is both an excoriating picture of psychological trauma and an utterly transfixing crime narrative.
Things are crumbling in The Coffinmaker’s Garden by Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins, £18.99). On the Scottish coast, a storm is forcing a home into the sea, exposing human remains. And in wider society, white supremacists are setting off bombs as concepts of law and order become nebulous. But bloody-minded ex-detective inspector Ash Henderson isn’t concerned with the broader picture — he is set on catching a killer, come hell or high water. We might not want to live in the insalubrious Scottish town of Oldcastle, but a trip there in the company of the always masterful MacBride keeps us on our toes.
Three brief recommendations: the unsettling House with No Doors by Jeff Noon (Doubleday, £18.99) is largely successful in stirring the supernatural into the brew as beleaguered detective Henry Hobbes investigates a series of bloody slayings. Meanwhile, The Ice by John Kare Raake (Pushkin Vertigo, £9.99, translated by Adam King) instils a mounting dread as Special Forces commando Anna Aune tackles bizarre murders at the North Pole in a tale as frigid and punishing as its title. And if Before She Disappeared (Century, £12.99) is demonstrably not Lisa Gardner firing on all cylinders, much of her old chutzpah is in evidence. The novel boasts a memorable anti-heroine in recovering alcoholic Frankie Elkin, on the trail of a missing 16-year-old, encountering people traffickers and institutional racism.
Barry Forshaw’s latest book is ‘Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide’
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