Set in Denver, Joann Chaney’s first novel, What You Don’t Know (Mantle, £12.99) begins where most crime fiction ends, with the capture of a murderer. Detectives Ralph Loren and Paul Hoskins collar successful businessman and pillar-of-the-community Jacky Seever, who, in his predilection for dressing up as a clown and for stashing the bodies of his numerous victims in the crawl space of his house, owes something to ’70s serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The case is reported by Hoskins’s lover, journalist Sammie Peterson, whose career is given a boost by the exclusive information she’s able to obtain. Seven years later, things are going less well for both of them: Hoskins’s anger-management problems have got the better of him and he’s been demoted, and Peterson, having lost her job, is selling make-up in a shopping mall. A series of copycat murders, with all the victims linked in some way to Seever, sends fresh shock waves through the still-recovering populace. Hoskins and Peterson take the chance to get their old lives back, Detective Loren’s obsession with the killer becomes increasingly bizarre and Seever’s wife Gloria, who has always maintained that she was ignorant of her husband’s activities, tries to stay out of sight. Insightful, with a well-drawn cast of plausibly flawed characters and plenty of psychological tension, this is a dark and thoughtful narrative of the consequences of a killing spree.
A journalist also takes centre-stage in My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood (Viking, £12.99). This time, it is war reporter Kate Rafter, who, troubled by PTSD after her time in Syria, returns to her childhood home in Herne Bay, Kent. As well as the horrors of war, she also has to deal with fall-out on the domestic front – the shipwreck of past tragedy and abuse brought groaning to the surface by the recent death of her mother, as well as her sister Sally, who seems determined to drink herself into oblivion. Kate’s hold on reality becomes increasingly tenuous as, befuddled by sleeping pills, she is unable to distinguish between her nightmares of Aleppo, her memories of the death of her baby brother, the screams issuing from next door and the small figure who may or may not be scampering around the back garden at night. Although the denouement may not come as much of a surprise, My Sister’s Bones is both compelling and convincing.
The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia (Quercus, £12.99) is set in a small town in rural Minnesota. Beautiful, clever and manipulative, 17-year-old Hattie, star of her high school’s production of Macbeth, dreams of acting on Broadway but ends up stabbed to death in an abandoned barn. The events of the year leading up to the killing are detailed by three narrators: Del Goodman, Vietnam veteran and county sheriff; English and Drama teacher Peter Lund, whose fascination with Hattie leads him to neglect his marriage; and Hattie herself. It’s a gripping mystery, but where Mejia really scores is in her portrayal of Hattie, a people-pleaser who is absorbed in trying on identities for size and testing her emergent carnal authority with all the arrogance of youth and certainty – in sharp contrast to the muddle and compromise of the lives of the adults around her.
It’s been said that there is little Mexican crime fiction because Mexicans have little faith in justice – few crimes are ever solved. In The Acid Test by Elmer* Mendoza (MacLehose Press, £14.99), the city of Culiacan is a lawless place, and, when the President declares war on the drug cartels who are, in any case, at war with each other, the slain lie in heaps. In the middle of the melee is Detective ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, a detective-hero in the noir mould, world-weary and self-doubting but dogged. He is trying to solve the murder of Mayra, a well-known stripper who shared her favours amongst a group of admirers, including – for one night – Lefty himself. There’s a bewilderingly large cast and the style – splice commas and unattributed dialogue in dense paragraphs – won’t suit everyone, but it’s worth persevering for a vivid glimpse into an ultra-violent world of macho posturing, unorthodox policing and ruthless criminality.
Life in the Devonshire seaside town of Temple Regis, setting for The Riviera Express by TP Fielden (HQ, £12.99), is an altogether calmer affair, with very little – aside from a disagreement at the 1958 Bowls Club AGM – to frighten the horses. However, when heart-throb film star Gerald Hennessey is found murdered on the 4.30 train from Paddington and weaselly ex-Fleet Street man Arthur Shrimsley has a fatal ‘accident’ on a cliff-top, Judy Dimont, reporter on the eponymous local paper, decides to investigate… Unashamedly cosy, with gentle humour and a pleasingly eccentric amateur sleuth, this solid, old-fashioned whodunit is the first in what promises to be an entertaining series.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2017