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Burden of Proofs: Autumn Crime Fiction With Angus Batey
Angus Batey , September 24th, 2022 08:02

In the latest edition of his regular crime fiction round-up, Angus Batey surveys new titles by Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, Richard Osman, and many others

It’s an unspoken – but rigidly enforced – rule here at tQ Towers that all regular columns need to feature an excruciating but subject-appropriate pun in their title. The shocker above owes its thematic resonance to an early classic by Scott Turow. And while the Chicago lawyer-turned-bestselling-author is in no way responsible for the standard of what passes for humour round these parts, nevertheless it feels like the least we could do to honour our unknowing muse would be to review his new book.

And we’re delighted to do so, as Suspect is a belter. Although taking place in the long-established Kindle County, Illinois ‘universe’ Turow created in 1990 and has returned to frequently since, there is no need to have read any of his previous novels before diving in here – a quality shared by all the books reviewed below that are part of series, incidentally.

Lawyers’ investigator Pinky Granum is an extraordinary character and a brave creation in our present cultural-social-political moment. By giving her the narrative role, Turow lends the book a singular, distinctive, timely and very necessary new kind of voice – which helps immeasurably in convincingly selling a complicated, multi-stranded plot involving institutional sexism, commercial espionage, national security, municipal corruption, organised crime, surveillance technology, drug dealing and, inevitably, murder.

As with many of the extended selection of books we’re going to look at this time around, this is an object lesson in how the crime genre can be used – by authors with the wit, the skill and the inclination – to address a wide range of vital, urgent and contentious issues in ways that allow readers of any background to understand and appreciate people with entirely different lived experiences to their own.

Another master returning to your local bookshop shelves, yet also making his first appearance in BoP, is Don Winslow. City On Fire is the first in a new trilogy, and finds one of crime fiction’s most versatile practitioners lighting out for territory he hasn’t explored in detail before, but which his readers will find immediately familiar despite some specific and detailed differences. Where 2010’s Savages and its se/prequel, The Kings of Cool, were set in a dayglo-bright hyper-real California inhabited by laid-back netizens and horrifying cartel killers, and the Power Of The Dog trilogy stands like a beacon amid the masses of fiction inspired by the US’s wars on drugs and terror, here Winslow returns to a similar kind of environment to that explored in The Winter Of Frankie Machine, but in an era that is not quite his (or our) own.

The book is set in the 1970s and on the fringes of the Mob, in unfashionable, out-of-state locales, but the stakes remain just as high for the protagonists as for anyone closer to a big city crime lord’s influence. By this stage in an uncommonly high-quality career, the sustained excellence of every aspect of the writing will come as no surprise. Yet the untold stories still to come in the next two books exert a palpable influence here, which, when combined with the elements of the world Winslow compellingly and completely creates, still leaves this reader wanting something more.

In books like California Fire And Life (a mystery whose protagonist is an arson investigator rather than a cop or a PI) or his two brilliant novels set amid a group of surfing buddies, Winslow has often excelled by painting a background few of us will have any familiarity with. Here there are clear and unignorable archetypes: Mario Puzo and David Chase both feel like kindred spirits. You’ll cut him some slack, because much of what happens here is clearly setting up the dramas that will follow in the next two books; and because all of it is of an uncommonly, stratospherically high standard. If this sounds like equivocation, then the critique is going too far – and it’s only because Winslow has routinely set standards so far ahead of most other writers on their very best days that expectations for his books are set at a point way past the end of most of the usual scales. Every scene feels true and thrilling; every sentence is a treat. In any objective appraisal this is sure to sit near the top of a list of the best novels of the year. But you sense that the best of these characters and their stories is yet to come.

Routine excellence is also what we have come to expect from Richard Osman. The Bullet That Missed is the third of his books about a group of septuagenarian amateur detectives living in a very 21st-century retirement community in post-Brexit south-east England, and is the best of the series to date. Osman’s empathy and love for his characters is balanced perfectly with a satisfying plot and some very well-turned jokes.

Despite his impeccable indie credentials, Osman has become the author that below-the-line blowhards seem to most love to hate, his books attracting comment-thread opprobrium that reads, all too often, as cut from the same cloth as those who reflexively attack major-label bands for taking space and attention away from self-funded strivers. It would be unfair to suggest that the only people who don’t like these books are those who haven’t read them, but folks in both of those circles do seem to occupy the majority of that particular Venn diagram.

There are certainly things about the series that will wind up some readers, but the books’ commercial success is not the result of either a massive con trick perpetrated by the publishing industry or the inherent herd-like stupidity of the thousands who’ve bought them – nor is Osman a worthy recipient of the bile spat by those who appear to believe that TV stars with book deals deserve their own special circle of hell. These books work – and will continue to sell, and to be read, and to be adored – because they are very clearly written by someone who cares deeply about the world around him, the people who inhabit it, and the social fabric that ties them all together. What’s not to like?

Crime fiction is a broad church but there’s nothing that authors – and fans – seem to like more than to take cherished tropes and forms – and find new ways to twist them into the present. Andrew Cartmel has some fun meshing different sub-genres in Attack And Decay, the latest in his understated and idiosyncratic The Vinyl Detective series. Cartmel himself has drawn parallels between his protagonist and those in Dashiel Hammett’s The Continental Op and Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, in that none of them are ever named.

His character, who solves the occasional murder in-between bouts of scouring secondhand record shops looking for mint-condition copies of highly collectible (and, alas, fictitious) LPs, also appears to share a fair bit of DNA with Jonathan Gash/John Grant’s BBC-adapted crime-fighting antiques dealer, Lovejoy – not least since both have a friend with a fondness for a tipple and an almost identical name (where Lovejoy had Tinker, the Vinyl Detective has Tinkler). Previous books have seen our nameless hero tracking down jazz acetates, folk mispressings and psych deletions, but this time out he and his friends hotfoot it to Scandinavia on the trail of a rare death metal release, allowing Cartmel to play around with Scandi-noir preconceptions.

Anthony Horowitz’s lightly fictionalised alter-ego appears for the fourth time as the Watson to retired copper Daniel Hawthorne’s Holmes in the superb The Twist Of A Knife. This one is even more meta than before, with Horowitz accused of the murder of a theatre critic, the alleged motive being that they’d given his stage play a bad review. There’s a fantastic chapter on cultural appropriation and a slightly tortuous yet roundly entertaining gag involving Michael Morpurgo, but ultimately what you’re left with is the sense that Horowitz is now so skilled a storyteller that he’s had to find new ways to make the job sufficiently interesting. It’s to our incredible shared good fortune that he continues to feel like making these considerable efforts.

Katy Watson has similarly decided to mesh golden-age characters with postmodern storytelling techniques in The Three Dahlias, where actresses who have portrayed the same fictional amateur detective team up to solve a murder at a fan convention, held in the (also fictional) late author’s country mansion. This brings a host of associated fringe characters into focus, including – implicitly, at least – the reader and what they bring to the puzzle. As a mystery, it’s effective and efficient. But as a thought experiment, it really gets under your skin.

There is another take on the cut-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world story device in the new Catherine Ryan Howard thriller, Run Time. Like Horowitz and Watson, Howard looks to other arts to help thread golden strands through her exquisitely woven narrative cloth. The individuals she sequesters from society in a remote large house in Ireland are the cast and crew of a low-budget arthouse horror film, itself based on an experimental novel – both of which are quoted from extensively in this culturally omnivorous, impossible-to-categorise book-within-a-book-within-a-book. Howard’s command and control of the multiple layers of deception is as exciting as her stylish displays of cross-textual daring.

Even Chris Brookmyre gets in on the act, offering a fresh rendition of a similar riff in The Cliff House, where a hen party crowd take to an ultra-modern luxury hotel on a remote Scottish island only to find – once the phone reception fails and the boat that can take them back to the mainland has slipped its anchor – that each of them has a terrible secret and one of them could be a killer.

Val McDermid, one of Brookmyre’s Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers bandmates, also sets a significant part of the action of 1989 on a similarly hard-to-get-to-and-from Scottish island – though the similarities between the books end there. The second in McDermid’s planned trilogy about journalist Allie Burns draws heavily on the author’s past life as a tabloid newsgatherer. The story proper begins with Burns attending a memorial to those killed when Pan Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, and, later in the year, she reports from the Hillsborough disaster – events McDermid covered while working for the Sunday People.

A complicated, labyrinthine plot takes Burns from Manchester to Edinburgh and over the wall to East Berlin as she tries to stand up a story about multinationals cutting corners on HIV drug trials. There are no prizes for guessing which since-deceased media mogul and thief she models the book’s Wallace Lockhart on. The rotund and aggressive ‘Ace’ hates Rupert Murdoch, smokes cigars and sees nothing wrong with “borrowing” money from his staff’s pension fund. Amid so much accurate historical detail the fictionalisation is striking – as is the depiction of Lockhart’s daughter, a malign yet not entirely unsympathetic character, clearly a victim of her father’s mendacity and not the sole architect of her own kind of evil. Perhaps we will see that side of her next time, when Burns will be nearing the end of the millennium.

We’re not only here to praise crime fiction that messes with the formula, of course. There is much to be said for a straight-up procedural that convinces, and in A Silent Truth, Rachel Amphlett provides just that. Set in a drawn-from-the-life Vale of the White Horse, the novel patiently follows intertwined investigations into an apparent hit-and-run and a county-lines drug operation. There is a certain poise, almost austerity, to the patience Amphlett deploys in her writing. Here, you sense, is fiction that reflects the realities of police investigations, with careful examination of pieces of data, lots of waiting for information to be supplied across tortuous bureaucracies, and the incipient awareness that, while an inconsequential aside may eventually supply the key to unlocking the mystery, more often than not it’s just an inconsequential aside. It’s a book that studiously avoids clichés, and as such may perhaps lack the dynamism of a lot of crime novels – but as a result you can believe her characters and their actions are as real as the places and landscapes she’s chosen to place them in.

Former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson and acclaimed ‘outback noir’ (relative) newcomer Peter Papathanasiou might not at first glance look like they’re going to occupy adjacent head space for the average crime-fiction fan, but both authors’ second novels are missing-person mysteries set in remote parts of Greece.

In The Invisible, Papathanasiou takes his PTSD-scarred Greek-born Australian detective George Manolis to a northern enclave where the borders of Greece, North Macedonia and Albania meet in the middle of a lake. It’s a fascinating and entirely effective replacement for the desert hellscape setting of his debut, The Stoning, and he peoples the rugged landscape with plausible characters who each have their own reasons for preferring a life lived on the fringes of 21st-century society.

One Of Our Ministers is Missing, Johnson’s follow-up to The Late Train To Gypsy Hill, reunites readers with Met Police assistant commissioner Louise Mangan, a minor player in the earlier book but the central figure here. She is dispatched to Crete when a government minister fails to return from a cross-island solo hike. It also gives readers another chance to relish Johnson’s clear-headed, slightly detached, careful, precise and ultimately winning prose style.

In its way, this is also another link between the two books and their authors: both prioritise clarity of expression, evocative description and gentle unfolding of character layers over showy stylistic flourishes or technical flash-bangery. And both books are all the better for that. (Extra marks, too, to Johnson’s publisher, for giving us our favourite uncorrected-proof error to date. Happily, the spine of the finished books has had its missing letter reinstated [see photo above]. Not that we’d have complained had Johnson chosen to write a supernatural-scented mystery about someone who could make large ecclesiastical buildings disappear.)

Isolated rural locales provide evocative and luminous settings for two other excellent new books from American authors. Chris Offutt follows up last year’s superb The Killing Hills with Shifty’s Boys, a second outing in the Kentucky hollers for his taciturn, troubled, perennially off-duty military policeman Mick Hardin, and – praise be – it’s an even better book than the previous instalment. The writing rings, scenes described with bejewelled fascination and intricate detail, yet each sentence is delivered with an almost weightless feel. You glide through the open, simply expressed narrative and emerge at the end surprised to discover how much heavyweight emotional, historical, social and political detail you’ve picked up along the way. Offutt’s ability to sketch the deepest, most ingrained depths of character through single snapshots is almost uncanny, and he honours the people he has created (and the real lives that surely inspired them) by allowing plot and action to grow from character in ways that are frequently surprising, sometimes disarming, and always entirely credible.

In a way, James Lee Burke has spent most of the past thirty years writing the same book. Whether he’s inside Dave Robichaux’s head as he wrestles with his permanently thrashing rage in Louisiana, or, as here, sitting on the shoulders of members of the Holland family as they range across Montana and spill blood in the dirt over the decades, these are ultimately all novels about the eternal war between good and evil, in which the reader is not merely confronted with the need to make a choice, but to accept and understand the difficulties that attend doing the right thing.

In Every Cloak Rolled In Blood, the stakes are raised. It was written in the aftermath of the death of Burke’s daughter, Pamela, and describes an almost metaphysical (yet all too uncomfortably, distressingly real) America ravaged by increasingly polarised politics poisoning the communities Burke has always written about and loves. The book rings with an intense anger that almost tips over into polemic, though Burke, of course, is far too savvy and experienced an operator to succumb to that temptation. Yet by dancing on the edge of it here he gives each page a broiling energy and the sense of an immense explosion ready to erupt that makes reading it a whole-body experience. afterwards you need a stretch, a workout or a long lie down. Maybe all three.

We’ll end this round-up with three books that maybe sit on the edge of what crime fiction means for some of its fans, but which map out possibilities and potentials that show how powerful the genre can be in the hands of skilled, imaginative and perceptive authors.

The third, and apparently last, of a wonderful series about an ex-CIA analyst, Rosalie Knecht’s Vera Kelly Lost And Found is a bijou delight. The titular hero heads off to LA with her girlfriend for a first meeting with the latter’s estranged father, and has to unpick a Gordian knot of prejudice, privilege and psychological manipulation as the nature of the unhappy home quickly reveals itself. It may at first be a function of the evocatively described setting, but there are echoes here of those storied inmates of the great gilded cages of American film and literature, the Kanes and the Gatsbys. Once the link is made, you realise there’s a similar sense of ranging invention and ambition driving Knecht as surely as drove Welles and Fitzgerald. Truly, remarkably and wonderfully, this is a book that doesn’t feel overburdened by the comparisons.

There isn’t a crime, as such, until the final act in The Girls Are Good, but Ilaria Bernardini’s writing leaves you in no doubt from the first pages that her teenage narrator is the victim of a series of ongoing abuses made all the more horrific by the way all the institutions and informal networks (family, school, friends, state) fail to protect her. The book is set in the cutthroat world of international gymnastics, which Bernardini has had extensive access to as a documentarian, and is unsparing in describing what, to the outsider, appear to be the accepted day-to-day horrors that give a kind of morbidly terrifying structure to the competitors’ lives. But more than being an expose of a life of pain and abuse hidden despite taking place in a pervasive and intrusive public gaze, her novel is about friendships under the most intense of pressures. This is an epic tragedy played out on the narrowest and most perilous, vertiginous of stages; her characters struggling to locate and then leverage the power their perceived public status must surely afford them as a last line of defence against a brutal, bruising, dehumanising system. The only time you’re jolted out of this wholly involving and bleakly moving book comes in the shattering final pages, but by then Bernardini has more than earned the right to ask for some suspension of disbelief.

John Vercher operates in not entirely dissimilar territory in his second novel, After The Lights Go Out. The ostensibly familiar yet ultimately occluded environment its characters inhabit is mixed martial arts. And while the empathy may not be as built-in from page one as is the case for Bernardini's young women, it’s not long before you realise that even the ring-worn veterans of Vercher’s semi-professional fight game are every inch the trapped and brutalised victims of a rigged system.

As in his magnificent debut, Three-Fifths, Vercher uses the surface narrative to explore race, prejudice, politics and class. Like Bernardini, he is ultimately writing about power: who has it, how and why, and how those without it have to struggle for their very survival. It also shares with The Girls Are Good a desperate, heartbreaking conclusion, one that will sit with the reader long after the final page is turned. What will also remain is the inescapable realisation that there could not have been any different outcome in the world we’ve all helped to shape. If the job of fiction is to hold up a mirror to society, these wonderful books, for all that they ostensibly inhabit tiny specialist corners of our world, will do more to remind their readers of our shared responsibilities amid the minutely, intricately interconnected webs we each weave.