Told in precise, economical prose, Bill Beverly’s debut novel Dodgers (No Exit Press, £14.99) is the story of 15-year-old East, a foot-soldier in LA’s street-level army of drug peddlers, who is tasked with killing a witness before a case comes to trial. Together with his feral, trigger-happy 13-year-old half-brother Ty, and two other young men, East, who has never been outside his home city before, travels across Wisconsin to commit the murder, but – as might be expected – things do not go entirely to plan. The book is a mash-up of rite-of-passage and road trip, with the four main characters at odds not only with each other, but also with a country that is entirely alien to them. The quiet, watchful East, at once world-weary and naive, is a heartbreakingly real character, and, although it could be argued that the drama peaks too early, giving a sense of anti-climax, Dodgers is well worth the read.
Sunset City, the first novel by American poet Melissa Ginsburg (Faber, £12.99) is set in Houston, Texas, where twenty-two-year-old barista Charlotte reconnects with Danielle, her best friend from High School, just days before a detective turns up on her doorstep to inform her that her erstwhile buddy has been found murdered in a motel room. Danielle was a troubled rich kid (abuse, estrangement from family, addiction, prison) who, at the time of her death, worked for a pornographic website, and Charlotte’s attempts to piece together what happened lead her into a sleazy and dangerous underworld. Sunset City is sexy, boozy, poignant and funny, with the excellence of Ginsburg’s writing more than compensating for some fairly thin plotting. Not a rollercoaster, but none the worse for that — it’s pathos, rather than twists and turns, that’ll keep you glued to the pages.
In contrast, The Turning Tide by Brooke Magnanti, author of the bestselling Secret Diary of a Call Girl series (Orion, £12.99), is a helter-skelter of a book with so many different plot strands and points of view that one wonders how on earth all the dots are going to join up to form a coherent whole. After her drug-dealer boyfriend is sent to prison for murder and she is kicked out of university, Erykah Macdonald has settled for a quiet life in the London suburb of Molesey. Twenty years on, it’s beginning to pall. Husband Rab has lost his job but pretends otherwise, and Erykah is having an affair with a woman at her rowing club and about to leave him when he announces that he’s won £20m on the lottery. The Macdonalds become front page news and Erykah’s past is exposed, but not before it becomes clear that the lottery win is a scam… However, there’s also the matter of a body found on a beach in the Hebrides and a Scottish version of UKIP with a Falklands veteran as its figurehead as well as organised crime, fracking, and the exposure of political shenanigans on Twitter – a rich mix that doesn’t, ultimately, succeed in adding up to the sum of its parts. That said, Magnanti is a good story-teller and her writing is confident, shrewd and often enjoyably satirical.
The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis (Mantle, £12.99), an ambitious if unwieldy and sometimes over-written debut, begins in 2010, when an elderly woman known only as ‘Mrs Walker’ dies alone in a freezing Edinburgh flat. Shortly afterwards, middle-aged Margaret, washed-up, dishonest and broke, returns from London to an equally chilly welcome from her mother. Desperate for a job, she winds up trying to discover the dead woman’s identity. Time-slip parallel narratives covering much of the twentieth century detail insanity, poverty, exploitation, child-murder and a series of women who are desperate to escape the confines of their lives and sever their ties with the past. It’s pretty clear from the off that Margaret is, unwittingly, tracing her own family history – and the set-up means that the reader ends up knowing far more than she ever will – but, despite some longueurs, this unsentimental, labyrinthine tale is both intriguing and atmospheric.
Anyone who fancies a sharp, exciting and all-round tasty London thriller would be well advised to pick up The House of Fame (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) by Oliver Harris, the third novel to feature rule-breaking anti-hero Nick Belsey. The maverick cop is – unsurprisingly – suspended, pending a hearing for gross misconduct, and camping out in the now-abandoned Hampstead police station when a woman looking for her missing son leads him to pop star, film star and celebrity fiancée Amber Knight, and he finds himself embroiled in a toxic melee of hedonists, hangers-on, publicity agents and a mysterious, not to say sinister, organisation called the Bridge Foundation. A fast-paced thriller which is also nuanced and evocative is a hard trick to master – hats off to Harris, who has, once again, managed it with style and authority.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2016