Being the latest in yours truly’s crime fiction round-ups for The Newspaper Formerly Known as the Old Lady of D’Olier Street. To wit:
Urban Waite’s THE TERROR OF LIVING (Simon & Schuster, £12.99, pb) derives its momentum from the intersecting arcs of three men: Bobby Drake, a deputy in Washington State, who stumbles across a drug-smuggling operation high in the mountains on the US-Canadian border; Phil Hunt, an ex-convict who subsidises his small-time ranching with an occasional trip across the border muling heroin; and Grady Fisher, a psychotic killer detailed to retrieve the missing heroin and murder anyone who might implicate his employers. Those broad strokes run perilously close to the plot of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2005), and largely accounts for the comparison to Cormac McCarthy in the novel’s blurb. While THE TERROR OF LIVING lacks McCarthy’s lyricism, the writing is pleasingly spare, muscular and lean, the characters sharply and for the most part sympathetically drawn, and the narrative a compelling blend of breathless plotting and existential angst. Beautifully descriptive in capturing the details of Seattle’s rural hinterland, THE TERROR OF LIVING is a remarkably assured debut.
Louise Penny’s sixth novel, BURY YOUR DEAD (Sphere, £7.99, pb), is something of a curio, and not just for its Quebec setting. Featuring Penny’s recurring series protagonist, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté, the novel is comprised of three distinct investigations, with Gamache, off-duty and recuperating after an operation went disastrously wrong, surreptitiously investigating the murder of a Quebecois historian who was obsessed with Samuel de Champlain, the legendary founder of Quebec City. Most intriguing, however, is the narrative strand in which Gamache, second-guessing his own investigation in Penny’s previous novel, THE BRUTAL TELLING (2009), sends his second-in-command, Beauvoir, to the bucolic village of Three Pines to unofficially re-open the case. Penny’s interweaving of her various strands is ambitious, and there’s much to enjoy in her affectionate and elegant descriptions of Quebecois foibles and the bitter Canadian winter. That said, first-time readers might find themselves confused by Penny’s rewriting of a previous novel’s plot, and there are times when the story reads like a too fervent homage to Agatha Christie, not least in the finale when not one but two groups of suspects are brought together to hear a detective announce the identity of a murderer.
Peter Leonard’s ALL HE SAW WAS THE GIRL (Faber and Faber, £12.99, pb) also reads like something of a homage, in this case to Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard’s father. American student McCabe gets kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity in Rome; once released, McCabe sets about retrieving the ransom from the Mafia-connected gang who kidnapped him. A multi-character narrative incorporates Angela, a Mafia don’s daughter, flamboyant Detroit mobster Joey Palermo, ex-Secret Service agent Ray, and Sharon, Ray’s wife and Joey Palermo’s current squeeze. The various narrative arcs converge on Rome and its rural hinterland, both of which Leonard is adept at evoking despite his pared-down style and use of the American vernacular. A bright and breezy comedy crime caper, albeit one which boasts a deadpan tone and blackly comic touches, the story moves at a furious rate as the characters ricochet around Rome. It’s all highly entertaining even if, in the most odious comparison possible, the novel lacks the heft of an Elmore Leonard novel, particularly in terms of the absence of any sense of real menace from the gangsters McCabe and Ray encounter.
The killer whose murder propels Laura Wilson’s A CAPITAL CRIME (Quercus, £12.99, pb) also lacks menace, although given that Wilson has based her novel on a true crime that occurred in post-WWII London, and that the murderer is a pathetically child-like creature, the novel is all the more fascinating for its absence. The third novel to feature Wilson’s DI Stratton, after STRATTON’S WAR (2008) and AN EMPTY DEATH (2010), the novel opens with Stratton charged with assembling the evidence that will reinforce John Davies’ confession that he strangled his wife and baby daughter. Satisfied that the facts mostly add up, Stratton sees Davies hanged, but subsequently comes to suspect a miscarriage of justice. Meticulously researched, A CAPITAL CRIME is suffused with an almost claustrophobic sense of post-war London, a city still suffering from the impact of rationing and only reluctantly coming to terms with the decline of Britain’s empire. Stratton himself is an immensely likeable character, an amiable and morally upright policeman who is only too aware of his own flaws. Wilson neatly contrasts Stratton’s ongoing mourning for his dead wife with his daughter’s dawning awareness of her lesbian sexuality, blending the personal with the more political aspects of Stratton’s professional self-doubt in a very satisfying historical police procedural.
Set in rural Mississippi, Tom Franklin’s CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER (Macmillan, £11.99, pb) opens with the shooting of small town mechanic Larry Ott, a semi-recluse who has long been suspected of the abduction and murder of a local girl some decades before. Local deputy Silas Jones is reluctant to lead the investigation into the shooting, as he and Larry were childhood friends before an ugly racial incident drove them apart, but the disappearance of another young girl overrules Silas’s personal distaste for the case. Ostensibly a police procedural, Franklin’s third novel deploys the genre’s narrative conventions as a framework for a much deeper exploration of the psychology of small-town America and its recent racist past. Both Larry and Silas are superbly drawn and fully fleshed characters, their personalities and conflict chthonic to rural Mississippi but luminously relevant, in Franklin’s hands, to any locale on the planet. Factor in a mesmerising evocation of rural Mississippi, language of sinuous and shimmering elegance, and a finely tuned ear for the nuances of dialogue, and you have a novel that is an early contender for one of the great novels of the year. - Declan Burke
This article 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.