Being a shorter-than-usual version of the ‘Crime Beat’ round-up in the Irish Times, due to circumstances that were largely beyond my control, not that my control is ever all that controlled. Anyhoo, herewith be the truncated column:
German author Andrea Maria Schenkel’s BUNKER (Quercus, £12.99) is a chilling tale of a woman’s abduction and incarceration. What makes the tale so compelling is that Schenkel isn’t content to simply ratchet up the tension with a conventional will-she-escape tale. Instead, Schenkel offers parallel narratives, from captor and abductor, both delivered for the most part in internal monologues, interspersing both with a third-person account of a nameless victim arriving to an emergency ward on the point of death. It’s a clever and wholly believable strategy, as Schenkel delves into both characters’ memories to excavate a complex and interlocking labyrinth of motive and guilt.
Henning Mankell’s DANIEL (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is another unusual crime novel. Set in 1875, it follows entomologist Hans Bengler to the Kalahari Desert, where he ‘adopts’ a young native, the sole survivor of a massacre. Naming the boy Daniel, Bengler takes him back to Sweden, where the child’s inability to adjust to his new surroundings eventually results in tragedy. A psychological study of alienation and its consequences, Mankell’s tale lacks the pace, punch and body count of his more conventional crime tales, and may disappoint fans of the traditional mystery / thriller genre. Furthermore, the character of Daniel never fully rings true: a sullen naïf when the plot suits, he is nonetheless phenomenally successful at mastering the Swedish language and gives voice to implausibly profound yearnings in one so young.
Val McDermid also ploughs something of a new furrow with her latest novel, TRICK OF THE DARK (Little, Brown, £18.99). Renowned for her gory murders, McDermid offers a more genteel story than usual when disgraced clinical psychologist Charlie Flint is asked by her former Oxford tutor to discreetly investigate the suspicious circumstances of the death of her son-in-law on the day of his wedding. McDermid, too, employs a neat narrative conceit in allowing the chief suspect for the man’s death to offer a first-person account of events by way of a memoir she is writing, although aficionados of the genre, expecting twists and turns, might deduce that too much is being pinned on one suspect. That said, McDermid writes a fluid, compelling novel of manners underpinned by a believable mystery plot, and Charlie Flint is a fascinating addition to the canon of intrepid female investigators.
Meanwhile, the rather-less-than-intrepid Mystery Man returns in the third of Colin Bateman’s new series of novels, DR YES (Headline, £14.99). The nameless hero, who owns the Belfast crime fiction bookstore No Alibis, is reluctantly dragged into yet another caffeine-fuelled adventure when legendary Northern Irish crime novelist Augustine Wogan commits suicide after alleging that a famous plastic surgeon - the eponymous villain - has murdered his wife. Bateman delights in undermining the crime tropes, making his ‘hero’ a cowardly neurotic who detects his way through the mostly self-inspired mayhem by taking his cues from the classics of the genre. Here Mystery Man meets - but fails to recognise - his first bona fide femme fatale in Pearl Knecklass, crime fiction fan and receptionist to Dr Yes, who may or may not be party to the real-or-imagined murder. Written with obvious affection for the genre, yet always ready to pounce on its clichés (Dr Yes fillets the current craze for serial murderers), the Mystery Man novels are page-turning whodunits with the bonus of a slyly subversive commentary on the contemporary crime novel.
This review first appeared in the Irish Times.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.