Patricia Cornwell is credited with kick-starting the current craze for the forensic pathology sub-genre in crime fiction, and her heroine Kay Scarpetta is again ahead of the curve in PORT MORTUARY (Little, Brown, £18.99, hb). Scarpetta employs a 3D system of imaging to help her autopsy the latest murder victim to wind up on her table, but it’s the victim’s use of innovative technology that appears to be the motive behind his killing. Is the US military involved in the murder? And is it a coincidence that the man was killed a stone’s throw from Scarpetta’s front door? Cornwell’s terse prose drives a complex tale of unravelling conspiracy theories, in which Scarpetta is unable to trust even her closest friends and associates. The pace is slow but measured, with the second half building to an unstoppable momentum, although first-time readers of Cornwell, and those who prefer their heroes flawed, might find it difficult to warm to Scarpetta’s icy-cold demeanour and unquestioned capability in virtually every field she encounters.This column was first published in the Irish Times.
Maeve Kerrigan, the heroine of Jane Casey’s THE BURNING (Ebury Press, £6.99, pb), is the polar opposite to Kay Scarpetta. A 28-year-old detective with the London Metropolitan Police, the ambitious and likeable Kerrigan is prone to the occasional procedural gaffe as she brings a woman’s quality of empathy to her male-dominated workplace during an investigation into a serial killer who immolates his victims. Casey, on the other hand, rarely puts a foot wrong in this enthralling example of a ‘bait-and-switch’ novel, of which the serial killer element is something of a red herring that allows Casey to dig deep into the psyche of an altogether more interesting brand of murder. Parallel first-person narratives from either side of the thin blue line contribute hugely to the novel’s page-turning quality, although the author’s success here is largely due to her superb characterisations. Casey’s debut novel, THE MISSING, was shortlisted in the Irish Book Awards crime section, and THE BURNING confirms that she’s a talent to watch.
FIELD GREY (Quercus, £17.99, hb) is the seventh in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, of which the most recent, IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, won this year’s CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award. Gunther, a policeman in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s, is the focus of what has been dubbed ‘Nazi noir’, although FIELD GREY opens in 1954, with Gunther observing Graham Greene carousing with women in a Havana nightclub. A series of unfortunate events finds Gunther back in Germany and answering to American investigators probing Nazi war crimes, which in turn leads to extended flashbacks in which Gunther describes his trans-European adventures in pursuit of a killer called Erich Mielke, a pursuit that finds Gunther and Mielke crossing paths for the duration of the war. Dotted with historical personages such as Heydrich and Himmler, the novel is impressive in its detail, and harrowing in its description of mass slaughter. Gunther’s fondness for inappropriate quips undermines his authenticity, however, and the detective-cum-soldier’s peripatetic wanderings means that the novel can lack narrative drive.
Janet Evanovich’s winsome heroine, Stephanie Plum, takes a back seat for her latest offering, WICKED APPETITE (Headline Review, £18.99, hb). Here Lizzy Tucker, singleton and pastry chef supreme, finds her all too normal world turned on its head when a mysterious and handsome stranger called Diesel materialises in her life and announces that he’s on the trail of seven mysterious stones, which will give the evil Gerwulf Grimoire unlimited powers should he manage to collect all seven. As fluffy and insubstantial as Lizzy’s legendary cupcakes, the story appears to be a parody of Harry Potter-style shenanigans, although Evanovich’s reputation for comedy is nowhere evident here. Slight, dull and for the most part needlessly irritating, WICKED APPETITE achieves very little except to sharpen the reader’s craving for a substantial novel.
The eighth in Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series, although the first to be translated into English, 1222 (Corvus, £12.99, hb) is a far meatier proposition from a former Norwegian Minister for Justice. The wheelchair-bound Wilhelmsen and her fellow passengers find themselves stranded in a remote mountain hotel during a blizzard in the wake of a train crash, and things go from bad to worse when two of the survivors are murdered in quick succession. Can the cerebral Wilhelmsen identify the murderer before the hotel becomes a charnel house? Holt has Wilhelmsen reference Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE during the course of her musings, and 1222 is indeed a smart homage to the classic ‘locked room’ mystery, which also functions as an examination of Norwegian society in microcosm. While the pace is lively, and the tension expertly handled, Holt’s fondness for red herrings won’t be to every reader’s taste.
Michael Connelly brings together two of his best-selling characters in THE REVERSAL (Orion, £18.99, hb), as defence lawyer Mickey Haller and detective Harry Bosch team up to ensure that a previously convicted child-killer does not escape justice when his case comes up for a retrial. It’s an outrageous conceit, particularly as Connelly is blending the traditional courtroom drama with a police procedural, and alternates Haller’s first-person narration with a third-person account of Bosch’s investigation, but the novel has a gripping clarity from the off, and very quickly establishes a compelling momentum. Connelly’s experience as an award-winning journalist is revealed in fascinating nuggets of information pertaining to both legal and police work, even as he draws us deeper into the conflicted worlds of Mickey Haller (for once operating ‘across the aisle’ as a prosecution lawyer) and the haunted Harry Bosch. All told, it’s another expertly handled tale from a born storyteller which blazes into an incendiary denouement as the child-killer turns his gaze on Mickey and Harry’s daughters. - Declan Burke
Top 10 Thrillers of the Year
ORCHID BLUE by Eoin McNamee (Faber and Faber, £12.99, pb).
A stunning meditation on the nature of justice, rooted in the real-life murder of Newry shop-girl Pearl Gamble in 1961.
TRICK OF THE DARK by Val McDermid (Little, Brown, £18.99, hb)
Disgraced clinical psychologist Charlie Flint seeks redemption in the pursuit of a possible serial killer.
THE LAST CHILD by John Hart (John Murray, £6.99, pb)
A young boy tracks his twin sister’s abductor in a superb excavation of the prejudices of small town America.
FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, pb)
Undercover policeman Frank Mackey’s past comes back to haunt him when a body is discovered in an inner-city Dublin tenement.
THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo (Vintage, £6.99, pb)
Oslo police detective Harry Hole investigates a killer whose trademark is a snowman in a hard-hitting tale of revenge.
SPIES OF THE BALKANS by Alan Furst (W&N, £18.99, hb)
Subterfuge and intrigue in WWII Greece, as policeman Costa Zannis sets up an underground railway to aid Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
PEELER by Kevin McCarthy (Mercier Press, £9.50, pb)
Excellently detailed historical crime novel set in Cork, in which the RIC and IRA chase the same killer during the War of Independence.
STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, £18.99, hb)
Whimsical but compelling tale of private detective Jackson Brodie’s attempt to trace an abducted child.
CITY OF LOST GIRLS by Declan Hughes (John Murray, £19.99, hb)
Hughes’ series detective investigates a peculiarly Irish morality as a serial killer stalks a Dublin-based movie set.
BAD INTENTIONS by Karin Fossum (Harvill Secker, £11.99, pb)
Inspector Sejer investigates an apparent suicide in Fossum’s latest cerebral take on the nature of crime and punishment.
“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.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Nobody Move, This Is A Review: The Irish Times’ ‘Crime Beat’
The latest of the Irish Times’ ‘Crime Beat’ columns appeared yesterday, featuring offerings from Patricia Cornwell, Jane Casey, Janet Evanovich, Philip Kerr, Michael Connelly and Anne Holt, along with your humble host’s take on the Top 10 Thrillers of the Year. To wit: