From gritty London gangland to mysterious Gallic whimsy, Laura Wilson rounds up the best recent crime releases
The third novel from journalist and scriptwriter M.H. Baylis, A Death at the Palace (Old Street Publishing, £8.99) is set in and around Wood Green, a largely unloved and often over-looked corner of North London colonised by successive waves of immigrants who rub along with varying degrees of success. Through its teeming cosmopolitan streets limps Rex Tracey, a journalist who ‘would be forty before his Oystercard needed its next top-up’ and who has fallen from the heights of Fleet Street to reporting for the local rag, where he is spending his time necking Polish beer and investigating an anti-immigration group. When the body of his Lithuanian ex-girlfriend Milda is discovered, he becomes a murder suspect and is forced into some detective work of his own. Meanwhile, retired chiropodist and camera-buff Arthur Chapman lives a life of quiet desperation, caring for his dying wife and struggling to keep the demons of his past at bay… With an appealing protagonist, a cast of vivid and compelling characters and a powerful sense of place, this is an excellent crime novel as well as a sharply observed slice of contemporary London life – and the good news is that it promises to be the first in a series.
Set a couple of miles to the east, in an equally well-rendered Hackney, Russ Litten’s second novel, Swear Down (Tindal Street Press, £12.99), features fast-tracked DS Peter Ndekwe, newly arrived from across the river. His boss wants him to wrap up the murder of gang leader Aaron Stewart, found stabbed on the Crown Heights estate, as soon as possible. There are, however, two confessions: one from Carlton Mackenzie, a young black man with some history as a petty criminal, who is making a valiant attempt to get himself away from the gang culture that threatens to envelop him, and another from Jack Shepherdson, a 71-year-old ex-trawlerman with a fondness for betting and booze. Rather than the investigation itself or the character of Ndekwe, who seems oddly page-bound in comparison to the other main characters, it is the story of the unlikely friendship between the two suspects that is the emotional core of Swear Down – subtle, moving and disturbing in equal measure.
Alex (MacLehose Press, £16.99) is the first work by award-winning French author Pierre Lemaitre* to be translated – superbly, by Frank Wynne – into English. At first, with a gorgeous woman who has a penchant for strange wigs and dines, mysterious and alone, in Parisian restaurants, and a 4ft 11in detective with a host of eccentric colleagues, we seem to be about to disappear down the rabbit hole of self-conscious Gallic whimsy, but when the beautiful heroine, Alex, is kidnapped, something altogether more visceral and urgent takes over. Pint-sized detective Camille proves able enough, although he has an annoying habit of constantly favouring hunches over investigative rigour, and there is plenty of humour, but the images are distressing, with Alex being kept prisoner in a cage and subjected to a nightmarish Room 101-type ordeal involving rats. Unlike many novels of this type in which the promise of a sensational premise fizzles out, there is a spectacular and wholly unexpected plot twist halfway through and the tension, along with the body count, mounts ever higher – an invigoratingly scary, one-sitting read.
At 631 pages, The Deliverance of Evil by Italian Roberto Costantini (Quercus, £16.99, translated by N. S. Thompson) would have benefitted from some judicious trimming, but this sprawling tale of personal and political corruption, expediency and revenge engages, despite the sometimes ponderous pace. Elisa Sordi is murdered in Rome during Italy’s 1982 World Cup victory, and the case remains unsolved until Italy’s 2006 triumph, when the killer strikes again. Costantini has created a fascinating protagonist, first seen as a 32-year-old compulsive womaniser with fascist sympathies, and then as an older, sadder and wiser man, bent on making amends for the mistakes of his past.
The Andalucian Friend (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is the first in a projected trilogy by Swedish television scriptwriter Alexander Soderberg**, translated by Neil Smith. Sophie Brinkmann, nurse and single mother of teenager Albert, becomes caught up in a global turf war between organised crime syndicates when she falls for patient Hector Guzman. Unbeknown to her, he is a powerful gangster who is determined to wrest supply routes for drugs and weapons from his Russian and German rivals. As the violence escalates, the police – who, it rapidly emerges, are just as unprincipled as the gangsters – begin to take an interest in Sophie, and soon she is under surveillance by prescription-drug addict Lars, who rapidly develops an obsession with her. There’s an enormous cast, a lot going on in the way of unreported hits-and-runs, house-breakings, shootings and kidnappings – the citizens in this version of Stockholm must be the least observant people on the planet – and some rather loose plotting, so it can be rather difficult to keep track of exactly what’s happening and why. Moral expectations are inverted, too, to such a degree that, at the end, what should be a real tragedy lacks the poignancy required for a satisfactory conclusion.