In fiction, as in life, women tend to get judged more harshly than men, and recently there has been much discussion about the merits and demerits of the unlikeable female protagonist. Such characters are hardly new – their ranks include Becky Sharp, Scarlett O’Hara and Emma Woodhouse – but the success of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller about a toxic marriage, has undoubtedly ensured that, in crime fiction at least, there will be plenty more to come. The eponymous unreliable narrator of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver (Headline, £14.99) is one such. Noa, thirty-five, has been on death row in Pennsylvania for the past ten years, awaiting the death penalty for the shooting of her father’s girlfriend, Sarah. Detached and sardonic, Noa refused to take the stand at her trial and has accepted her fate. When, six months before ‘X-day’, Sarah’s mother Marlene visits, offering to plead for clemency in return for the truth about her daughter’s death, she refuses to cooperate, but as the days go by, she decides to set pen to paper. The truth, of course, is neither pure nor simple, either for Noa or for Marlene, whose narrative is told in a series of letters to her dead child. Although the overwrought prose may occasionally have you muttering ‘Calm down, dear,’ this is a challenging and compelling read.
With ‘Her’ and ‘Him’ sections side by side, The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison (Headline, £7.99) gives dual perspective on the rotten core of an outwardly successful relationship. Jodi is an analyst, Todd a property developer. They’ve been together for twenty years – unmarried, despite the book’s title (he wanted to, she didn’t see the need) – and they have a beautiful apartment in Chicago, an affluent lifestyle and a delightful dog. Todd is as careful to keep his serial affairs from his partner as she is not to admit that she is aware of them, and in this way, the veneer of two lives well lived can be maintained. When Todd is railroaded into moving in with his pregnant young mistress, such compartmentalising is no longer possible and when Jodi realises that the law considers her to be ‘nothing more than an ex-girlfriend whose free ride is now over’, she decides to take extreme measures. Well balanced, painfully perceptive and very dark, The Silent Wife is as breath-takingly riveting as a slow-motion car crash.
The Red Road by Denise Mina (Orion, £12.99) begins in 1997 on the night Princess Diana died, when Glaswegian Rose Wilson, fourteen years old and in care, murders the ‘boyfriend’ who has been pimping her out to his mates. She’s killed someone else, too – Pinkie Brown, who is also in care – but Pinkie’s younger brother Michael is arrested for that crime and spends his formative years in gaol. Sixteen years later, DI Alex Morrow is a witness in the case of Michael Brown, now grown up and being tried for arms dealing. While he is in custody, his fingerprints turn up at the scene of a murder he couldn’t possibly have committed, and things get very complicated indeed… Mina is a dab hand at constructing complex reads in which corruption permeates all levels of society and no-one is left untainted, and The Red Road is no exception: unsentimental, unsettling, and very, very good.
There’s also plenty of corruption in the village of Altenhain, near Frankfurt, in Nele Neuhaus’s Snow White Must Die (Macmillan, £12.99, translated from German by Steven T. Murray). In 2008, 31-year-old Tobias Sartorius is released from prison, having served an eleven-year sentence for the murder of two girls, an event about which he remembers nothing. During the time he’s been away, his parents have divorced, the family restaurant has folded following a boycott and his childhood home has gone to rack and ruin, and, now he’s back, the neighbours are implacably hostile. When his mother is attacked, DI Pia Kirchhoff and her boss DS Oliver von Bodenstein are tasked with investigating. Nobody in Altenhain is prepared to help, and, when another girl disappears, all fingers point at Tobias. With more twists and turns that you can shake a stick at and a suitably over-the-top ending, Snow White Must Die is excellent pool-side fare.
The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom (Fourth Estate, £14.99) is the first in a projected series of 39 ‘County Guides’ novels. It’s the late 1930s, and narrator Stephen Sefton, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, secures a job as secretary to prolific author and ‘People’s Professor’ Swanton Morley, who is – of course – planning a series of guides to English counties. Sefton and Morley, together with the latter’s modish daughter, proceed to the Norfolk coast, where, noting the finer architectural points of Blakeney Church, they come upon the body of the vicar hanging from a bell-rope. An old-fashioned mystery in the best possible sense: charming, funny, and entertaining.