The current batch of crime fiction is an eclectic one, taking readers from late Victorian London to villainous AI, mysterious mass suicides to a twist on the trope of the disappearing train passenger.
Kate Griffin created a genuinely innovative figure in historical fiction with Kitty Peck, propelling her on riotous excursions through the seamy world of 1880s music halls in London’s East End. In Kitty Peck and the Parliament of Shadows (Faber, RRP£8.99), Griffin’s protagonist takes control of her grandmother’s criminal enterprises (prostitution, drugs and contraband) with a view to transforming them. But Kitty discovers that the organisation is in thrall to the fiendish Barons of London and finds herself up against not only this sinister group but also a rabble-rousing preacher bent on destroying what he sees as the moral cesspit of Kitty’s life. Griffin entreats patience from her readers before she unleashes a satisfying barrage of Technicolor effects.
In 17 Church Row, James Carol (Zaffre, RRP£7.99) riffs on our uneasy relationship with technology. The Rhodes have lost their daughter Grace in a road accident; their remaining child, Bella, has been an elective mute since that day.
The family moves into a new home with a futuristic computerised security system. The latter is clearly a cousin of HAL 9000, the malevolent artificial intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and begins to behave in a more menacing fashion than it was designed for. Carol’s work sustains a provocative tension between the high-concept thriller and the novel of character: outrageous plotting grounded in economically drawn but plausible characters. SK Tremayne’s tense The Assistant (HarperCollins, RRP£12.99) has a similar high-tech threat, this time from an electronic home assistant called Electra.
A teenage girl is abducted and assaulted on the streets of Oxford — but detective inspector Adam Fawley cannot understand why she will not press charges, with her mother minimising the incident. Before he can discover what the women are concealing, another girl is snatched off the streets. Dark echoes of Jacobean tragedies subtly inform All the Rage by Cara Hunter (Penguin, RRP£7.99), and with the strikingly characterised team of detectives there are hints of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Hunter has rejuvenated the police procedural with a wealth of details while making some cogent points about societal problems.
Howard Linskey might have launched his career with The Drop, a blistering British gangster novel, but Alice Teale Is Missing (Penguin, RRP£7.99) — writing under the abbreviated moniker of HA Linskey — is a different kettle of fish. More female-centric than his earlier work, the familiar tropes of the plot will be forgiven as readers are gripped by a narrative full of subtle authorial touches. Alice is a popular teenager who vanishes from school. As detectives Beth Winter and Lucas Black begin to quiz her family, boyfriend and friends, they find that almost everyone they speak to is harbouring some clandestine information. And when a package turns up — the missing girl’s diary — some malign behaviour emerges, with Beth on the receiving end of brutal violence.
During the overnight train journey the woman dies, a needle by her cold hand — there is no sign of the child
Another writer with a newly truncated name is MJ Cross (formerly Mason Cross), whose What She Saw Last Night (Orion, RRP£8.99) sports a striking premise, albeit one that has seen considerable service before.
On the Caledonian sleeper train between London and Scotland, Jenny Bowen encounters a stressed-looking woman with a young girl who may be her daughter. During the night the woman dies, a needle by her cold hand. But there is no sign of the child — and the police do not believe she was ever there. This latest riff on a familiar theme is delivered with the kind of writerly acumen we have come to expect from Cross.
Some years ago, the suggestion that child abuse was not a fit subject for crime fiction stirred controversy among British crime writers. One wonders if the theme of Nothing Important Happened Today (Orenda, RRP£8.99) — manipulation that leads to suicide — is another taboo broken. Will Carver’s novel treats this difficult theme in responsible and intelligent fashion. Commuters on a train are horrified to see rows of people standing on Chelsea Bridge with nooses round their necks. After the deaths of these “People of Choice” (as those who received prepared suicide notes become known), Carver examines in cool but involved prose the agenda of the global suicide cult behind the deaths. Not for readers of delicate sensibilities.
Finally, two hearty recommendations: one for Peter Guttridge’s witty The Lady of the Lake (Severn House, RRP£20.99), a diverting mystery in traditional style beginning with the murder of an unpleasant major, and the other for Come a Little Closer by Karen Perry (Michael Joseph, RRP£7.99), which deals with a woman befriending her lonely neighbour — who turns out to be a wife killer. Mightily suspenseful fare.
Barry Forshaw’s latest book is ‘Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide’
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