Frank Parrish is a NYPD detective in RJ Ellory’s SAINTS OF NEW YORK (Orion, £12.99, pb), a man who becomes obsessed with the murder of teenage girls. Parrish is initially a conventional character, a hard-drinking loner who subverts the justice system, but it’s hard not to share his obsession, particularly as the young women are being killed for the purpose of snuff movies. Parrish is also haunted by his father’s reputation as one of the eponymous saints, a legendary cop who played a major part in breaking the Mafia’s stranglehold on organised crime in New York, although Frank is convinced that his father was a Mafia pawn. A pleasingly methodical and realistic police procedural, ‘Saints of New York’ is equally impressive as a psychological study of a man on the edge of the abyss, and Ellory invests his gripping plot and strong characterisations with an existential angst that at times makes for harrowing reading.
Last seen in GONE, BABY, GONE (2008), Dennis Lehane’s private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro return in MOONLIGHT MILE (Little, Brown, £15.99, pb). The pair have given up their dangerous lives, and have settled into domestic bliss, but Patrick finds himself dragged back into the squalid world he once knew when Amanda McCready, the four-year-old girl he returned to her unfit mother in GONE, BABY, GONE, goes missing again. Likeable but lethal Slavic mobsters provide the narrative tension, and Lehane maintains a page-turning pace courtesy of Patrick’s laconic narration, a downbeat and blackly humorous style that is entirely appropriate for Lehane’s depiction of the banality of evil. Oddly, however, there is a sense that danger is always kept at arm’s length. Recently a father, as is Lehane himself, Patrick prioritises his family over his self-imposed duty to the missing girl. While this may well be an eminently pragmatic way of dealing with drug-fuelled killers, and further subverts the fictional private eye’s time-honoured but implausibly noble instincts to solve a case at all cost, it does have the effect of blunting the novel’s impact.
Teresa Solano’s A SHORTCUT TO PARADISE (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99, pb) is a Barcelona-set comic crime offering which heralds the return of the non-identical detective twins Borja and Eduard. The pair are commissioned to investigate the murder of Marina Dolc, bestselling populist writer, on the night she received a prestigious literary award. Was one of Dolc’s rivals the killer? The reader knows from the outset that the hapless novelist (and runner-up) Amadeu Cabestany wasn’t responsible for Dolc’s death, but Cabestany affords Solana ample opportunity to loose comic barbs at the literary snobbishness that denigrates genre fiction in general and crime fiction in particular. The joke wears thin after a while, but Solano also has important things to say, albeit in a deceptively light and humorous fashion, about the global economic downturn, and how formerly upstanding citizens can be driven to criminal actions by forces beyond their control. Given that one of crime fiction’s most important functions is social commentary, Solana’s novel offers a valuable insight into contemporary Spanish life.
Susanna Gregory’s A BODY IN THE THAMES (Sphere, £19.99, hb) offers an equally fascinating glimpse of a particular time and place, in this case Restoration London. The sixth outing for professional intelligencer - aka spy - Thomas Chaloner, it takes for its backdrop the peace negotiations between the English and the Dutch during the long, hot summer of 1664, as both countries, in theory at least, strive to avoid war. Chaloner investigates the death of his former brother-in-law, Dutch diplomat Willen Hanse, who may well have been murdered by war-mongering hawks from either delegation. Wonderfully researched, the novel is pungent with historical detail, nuggets of which provide any reader who is even vaguely familiar with modern London with plenty of material to delight in. Unfortunately, Gregory’s prose, and particularly her dialogue, is rather stilted, while most of the characters - although based on historical personages - are little more than stiffly drawn ciphers for greed, power and lust.
Sam Hawken’s debut THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ (Serpent’s Tail, £10.99, pb) offers another compelling setting, Ciudad Juarez on the US-Mexican border, a city in which locals believe the number of women who have disappeared since 1993, probably murdered, exceeds 5,000. The novel opens with punch-drunk American boxer Kelly Courter attempting to trace his missing girlfriend, Paloma, although the issue is complicated by the fact that Paloma is the sister of Estéban, Kelly’s friend and sometime partner in illicit drug-dealing. These facts are known to Rafael Sevilla, a Juárez police detective, who also takes an interest in Paloma’s disappearance, an interest that is as personal as it is professional. Hawken trades in gritty realism and a haunting sense of loss and hopelessness, and while the novel is very much a singular achievement, it does bring to mind favourable comparisons with Richard Ford’s THE ULTMATE GOOD LUCK (1981).
The latest in Joseph Wambaugh’s series of ‘Hollywood’ novels, HOLLYWOOD HILLS (Corvus, £16.99, hb) brings together a colourful collection of LAPD cops who work out of the notorious Hollywood Station, splicing their more bizarre tales of working the La-La-Land beat with those of scammers, thieves and reprobates. The multiple storylines and initially bewildering cast of characters may leave some readers disorientated at the beginning, but Wambaugh is a masterful storyteller (this is his 18th novel), and it’s not long before the various elements coalesce into a dazzling mosaic that offers caper-style comedy, downbeat heroics, heartbreakingly authentic detail and unconventional but effective police procedural work. For those unfamiliar with the ‘Hollywood’ novels, Elmore Leonard may prove a useful reference point, with the crucial difference being that Wambaugh’s characters understand that Hollywood is a surreal stage, and that each must play their part to the hilt. - Declan Burke
This column was first published 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.