Danger is a good teacher, said Hazlitt, and there are some hard lessons to be learned in this month’s peril-packed selection of crime fiction.
Don Winslow’s City on Fire (HarperCollins, £ 20) sports myriad sources of threat. In 1980s Rhode Island, longshoreman Danny Ryan is an affectionate family man who is reluctantly prepared to employ strong-arm tactics for the Irish crime syndicate that rules Providence. When, in a Homeric plot device, a young woman causes 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 crime writing, and this remarkable novel – delayed from its original publishing date because of Covid – is both breathtakingly panoramic and infinitesimally focused. Winslow admittedly takes his sweet time, but the rewards are manifold.
It’s hard to keep up with the current crop of British female crime novelists. Among the most talented? Harriet Tyce, whose It Ends at Midnight (Wildfire, £ 16.99) is a finely constructed piece of psychological crime writing.
Midnight is approaching at an upscale New Year’s Eve party in Edinburgh, but one participant has murdered rather than Auld Lang Syne on their mind. Tess, seriously ill, is present at the party; she is hoping to renew vows with her estranged husband and enlists the help of her friend from sixth form, Sylvie. But both women are soon dealing with a crushing legacy of guilt – not to mention an individual full of vengeful hate. Characterization and narrative drive conjoin impeccably in Tyce’s tense tale.
A similarly adroit writer is Gillian McAllister, whose Wrong Place, Wrong Time (Michael Joseph, £ 14.99) channels Groundhog Day with an endlessly replayed murder, as a woman’s unassuming son kills a stranger – over and over again. The familiar plot motif is given an unguessable reset, and McAllister ensures that characterization is as central to the novel’s success as the plotting.
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 evidence of that assertion. Originally written in Afrikaans but translated – with customary aplomb – by KL Seegers, Meyer’s single-minded detectives Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido are demoted (after an ill-advised sortie in Cape Town) to warrant officers in neighboring Stellenbosch. As they look into the disappearance of a computer wizard, their own problems (such as Benny’s struggle with alcoholism) compromise the investigation. More Afrikaans than usual has been left in this time, but Meyer fans will not mind persevering: every word earns its place, and there’s no stinting on the usual nuanced critique of South African politics.
Those readers who took the trip on Japan’s bullet train in Kotaro Isaka’s high-energy novel of that 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 delivers an unusual journey. The eponymous killers – along with a man bent on payback for the death of his wife – are engaged in a dance of death, with a variety of ghosts in the mix. The bizarre interactions in this lethal community are every bit as surreal as in the earlier book, but the novelty of Bullet Train is absent.
I hope Lindsey Davis does not object to being called a veteran writer of historical crime fiction. After all, there’s no denying that – in the realm of skulduggery in ancient Rome, at least – she has seen off all her peers over the years, as Desperate Undertaking (Hodder & Stoughton, £ 20) once again reminds us. The Emperor Domitian’s new Odeon and Stadium are blood-soaked after artistically arranged killings, and Flavia Albia (daughter of Davis’s durable sleuth Falco) is commissioned to discover why the theatrical community is under lethal siege. As ever, Davis transports us to a superbly realized ancient world full of persuasive detail. Who cares that there were no sleuths in first-century Rome?
In the legions of “Scandibrits” – British writers who set their work in the Nordic countries – Will Dean is first of all – but First Born (Hodder & Stoughton, £ 16.99) finds him abandoning Sweden to powerful effect. The identical twins Molly and Katie live an ocean apart, in London and New York respectively. Molly is the constrained, nervous sister, while Katie is adventurous and outgoing. But when Molly learns that her sibling has died, she attempts to identify Katie’s final movements – and finds her own life in danger. As well as delivering the requisite tension of the thriller genre, Dean takes on issues of personal identity and familial responsibility, proving that he does not need the Swedish forests to charge his creative batteries.
Finally, second in a new venture for the artist formerly known as Anya Lipska. Life Sentence by AK Turner (Zaffre, £ 8.99) again swaps the social concerns of her earlier work to follow Cassie Raven, a very winning mortuary technician. Raven’s affinity with death is tested when her own father – convicted of murder her mother – is released from prison and hopes to persuade his daughter of his innocence. This is a forensic thriller of quiet assurance, and Cassie is a distinctive, authoritatively realized protagonist.
Barry Forshaw is the author of ‘Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide’
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