William Peter Blatty’s THE REDEMPTION (Piatkus Books, £7.99, pb) is an unusual thriller, as you might expect from the author of THE EXORCIST. Opening in Albania in the 1970s, the story focuses on a man being tortured on suspicion of being an enemy agent of the State. The atmosphere is redolent of a John Le Carré Cold War thriller, albeit one with supernatural overtones - the tortured man, Dimiter, remains effortlessly unbroken, and is spoken of in whispered tones as ‘the agent from Hell’. The setting then switches to Jerusalem, where a local police detective investigates a number of strange murders, and the supernatural tone gives way to a more philosophical enquiry into the politics of revenge, salvation and redemption. Blatty’s prose is starkly rendered, a minimalist style that adds momentum to the propulsive plot. There are occasional poetic flourishes, however, which leaven the story’s hard-headed realism, just as Blatty’s hints that Dimiter may be a creature more exotic than a mere spy lend the thriller format an element of quixotic speculation. The net result is a haunting tale that remains thought-provoking long after the final revelation.
TABOO (Simon & Schuster, £6.99, pb) is the debut offering from husband-and-wife writing team Kevin and Melissa Hill. The latter is better known as the author of a series of best-selling women’s fiction titles, and here she creates the ultra-feminine feminist Reilly Steel, a California-born forensic investigator seconded to the newly founded Garda Forensic Unit, based in Dublin. The narrative employs for its spine a series of perverse murders that all appear to transgress social taboos, although the plot itself is secondary to the establishing of Reilly Steel as a credible Irish alternative to the international popularity of CSI-related investigations. In this the Casey Hill writing team is largely successful: Reilly Steel is a broadly drawn but likeable character, smart but not omnipotent, entirely capable but vulnerable too. The presence of a Quantico-trained FBI investigator on the mean streets of Dublin is plausibly achieved, and the novel derives its page-turning quality from the rapid pace of events as the investigation gathers momentum. The frenetic pace, however, results in a lack of psychological depth when it comes to characterisation, while the machinations of the fiendish killer are revealed to be disappointingly clichéd at the finale.
CITY OF THE DEAD (Faber and Faber, £12.99, pb) is Sara Gran’s fourth novel, and the first to feature the private investigator Claire DeWitt. Commissioned to find a missing man in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, DeWitt applies her unique brand of investigation style. This echoes the modus operandi of classic private eyes such as Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, but often appears counter-intuitive due to DeWitt’s devotion to the theories of legendary French detective Jacques Silette, as espoused in his sole publication, ‘Detection’. Searching in the least likely places, working off instinct and hunch, DeWitt trawls the devastated New Orleans in pursuit of a truth she explicitly acknowledges does not exist. The tale has strong echoes of Ken Bruen’s post-modern take on the private eye novel, in which the case being investigated is less important than the self-invigilating investigator; as is the case with Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels, in which his native Galway looms large as a character, New Orleans, and the lack of response from the Bush administration to the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina, provides Gran not only with her setting but also her theme. The result is a tour-de-force. Mock profundity blends into brilliantly detailed description on a line-by-line basis in a novel that deserves to be read in tandem with James Lee Burke’s magisterial THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN.
THE GALLOWS BIRD (HarperCollins, £12.99, pb) is the fourth in Camilla Lackberg’s Patrick Hedström series, which is set in the relatively sedate backwater of Tanumshede in Sweden. Opening with what appears to be a straightforward single-vehicle drink-driving fatality which subsequently proves to be something rather more sinister, the novel broadens out to accommodate a number of narratives which run parallel to Hedström’s initial investigation. Chief among these is the murder of a contestant in a TV reality show being shot in Tanumshede, although Lackberg also invests the story with domestic detail in the run-up to Hedström’s impending marriage to his partner, Erica, who is herself struggling to cope with the demands imposed by her sister’s depression. Lackberg is one of Sweden’s best-selling authors, but THE GALLOWS BIRD is a curiously disjointed police procedural, its frequent digressions into the domestic minutiae of the protagonists’ lives creating a frustratingly halting tale that lacks narrative drive.
THE TROUBLED MAN (Harvill Secker, £19.99, pb) of Henning Mankell’s latest offering can only be his perpetually self-questioning police detective Kurt Wallander. In this, his last case, Wallander is more troubled than ever, and not only by the disappearance of the future father-in-law of his daughter, Linda; Wallander, unable to ignore the protests of his aging body, is contemplating his own mortality and casting a cold eye over his career. What unfolds is a novel that works on a number of levels: a compelling investigation into a Swedish Cold War spy ring, a philosophical assessment of the nature of policing and its function in society, and a very personal evaluation of a person’s worth in the grand scheme of things, as Wallander opens a ledger on his own life’s profit and loss. Written in Mankell’s downbeat style (beautifully translated by Laurie Thompson), the fatalistic tone is entirely fitting for the final testimony of one of crime fiction’s great protagonists. The result is a hugely satisfying novel that ranks alongside Mankell’s best, a heartbreaking tale of descent into despair and darkness that serves as a totem for what great crime writing can achieve.
Declan Burke is the editor of the forthcoming collection DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS: IRISH CRIME WRITING IN THE 21st CENTURY (Liberties Press).
This column 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.