Statistics tell us that we are all reading more in the era of Covid-19 — and that the crime fiction genre reigns supreme. The urban Irish settings of the novels of Tana French have been among the most acutely evoked in the genre but, with The Searcher (Viking, £14.99), this most unsparing of psychological novelists plunges us into the unruly rural west of the country with its gloomy Celtic past.
Into this setting, French drops a fish out of water: retired Chicago detective Cal Hooper, fleeing a punishing job and a fractious marriage. But peace proves to be elusive for Cal. As he attempts to spruce up his cottage, things impinge: his neighbour’s sheep are being slaughtered, and a wild teenage boy in search of a missing brother becomes a kind of surrogate son. Inevitably, Cal’s involvement with these local problems becomes a source of violent friction with his neighbours, and his outsider status places him in danger. Cloistered, unfriendly communities are 10-a-penny in crime fiction, but few are realised with the textured detail that French supplies here; the alienated Cal proves to be one of her most distinctive protagonists.
The action of The Lost and the Damned by French writer Olivier Norek (MacLehose Press, £16.99, translated by Nick Caistor) takes place in the seamy Paris département of Seine-Saint-Denis, once a thriving industrial area, now crowded with tower blocks and immigrants, legal and otherwise. It’s no surprise that Norek renders this area so pungently — he lives here and, as an ex-cop, he has personal engagement with the criminal side of the city, something he has already channelled into the gritty French TV series Spiral. Norek’s hard-bitten flic, Capitaine Coste, is autobiographical and something of a failed romantic in the face of a hostile world. With bodies that sit upright on the mortuary slab, spontaneous human combustion and manifestations of vampirism, this is not conventional crime. Reading this full-throttle piece is both a troubling and an exhilarating experience.
The late Josephine Tey clearly missed a trick by simply writing about crime rather than becoming an amateur sleuth herself but it’s a historical omission that has been corrected by Nicola Upson in a winning series of books featuring Tey (in Upson’s iteration, a crime solver as well as a gay novelist). The latest prime example, The Dead of Winter (Faber, £12.99), is kept low-key by its cool tone, but remains insidiously gripping. At the St Aubyn family’s Cornish castle, a house party in 1938 has a famous guest, film star Marlene Dietrich, resisting attempts by the Nazi party to dragoon her. A blizzard strikes and so does a killer. Fortunately, Tey and her police friend Archie Penrose are on hand.
Michael Connelly remains comfortably sui generis in the crime writing stakes, as The Law of Innocence (Orion, £20) once again reminds us. When the police pull low-rent defence attorney Mickey Haller to the side of the road, a corpse is found in his trunk — that of an ex-client. Mickey will need to strain every legal muscle to prove his innocence. Delicious stuff as ever, with a too-brief walk-on for Connelly’s other key protagonist, robust policeman Harry Bosch.
A page-turning duo of novels: ingenious and sardonically written Body Language by AK Turner, (Zaffre, £8.99) has intuitive mortuary technician Cassie Raven listening to the dead (she believes she can pick up the final thoughts) to solve a grisly killing. This is authoritative crime fare, as is Turncoat by Anthony J Quinn (No Exit Press, £9.99), in which a troubled Belfast detective, survivor of a lethal IRA ambush (stunningly described), searches for an enigmatic informer on a holy island on Lough Derg. Examining issues of guilt, responsibility and the legacy of the Troubles, Quinn’s novel is both paranoid and atmospheric.
Finally, two toothsome slices of Nordic Noir. Fallen Angels (Orenda, £8.99, translated by Don Bartlett) is proof positive that Gunnar Staalesen is the key detective writer in Scandinavia still working in the great American tradition, as in this 1989 novel — appearing for the first time in English. A gruesome murder has Staalesen’s social worker-turned-sleuth Varg Veum revisiting his own youth to track down a murderer.
Meanwhile, Solveig Palsdottir — a writer who has remained a mystery to non-Icelandic-speaking crime fans — enjoys a welcome first translation into English by Quentin Bates. The Fox (Corylus, £8.99) proves that what we’ve been hearing from Scandinavian readers is true: Palsdottir is the real deal. Reykjavik ex-cop Fransson, holding down a dead-end job as a security guard, becomes involved in the disappearance of a foreign woman; a secluded farmhouse in the mountains holds grim revelations. Idiosyncratically told, adroitly translated.
Barry Forshaw is the author of ‘Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide’
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