Sadly, Swedish author Hakan Nesser’s excellent Inspector Van Veeteren series has now come to an end, but his latest novel, The Living and the Dead in Winsford (translated by Laurie Thompson, Mantle, £12.99) is a standalone that certainly won’t disappoint. As far as her children and friends are concerned, Swedish former TV presenter Maria Holinek is in Morocco with her ‘literary colossus’ of a husband, Martin, who, in the wake of a scandal, has gone there to write a book about an important event in his past. In fact, she is holed up, alone but for her dog, in the Exmoor village of Winsford. Maria pretends to the locals that she is an author seeking peace and quiet – in fact, her sole intention is to outlive her pet. The revelation of exactly what it is that she is trying to escape and why she intends to end her life is gradual and utterly intriguing. Told in the first person, this is a superb evocation of a woman in the grip of a major emotional and moral crisis, set against a well-evoked moorland landscape.
Also existing provisionally is marine biologist Catrin Quinn, one of three main characters in Sharon Bolton’s latest novel, Little Black Lies (Bantam Press, £14.99), which is set on the Falkland Islands twelve years after the conflict, in a community still feeling the effects of the invasion. Catrin’s young sons, Kit and Ned, were killed whilst in the care of Rachel, her best friend since childhood. Three years on, Catrin, whose marriage fell apart after the tragedy, is brittle and furious, and the only thing keeping her functional is the desire for revenge. Several boys have disappeared since the deaths of Kit and Ned, and the townspeople turn vigilante in their attempts to find the culprit. The story, told from the points of view of Catrin, former Para and PTSD sufferer Callum Murray, and Rachel herself, lonely and overwhelmed by guilt, is a well-crafted cat’s cradle of lies and betrayals, but what makes this book special is Bolton’s vivid and sympathetic depiction of the place itself, whether it be the wildlife or the necessarily claustrophobic nature of human existence on a small island.
Old friendships also come unstuck in Ruth Ware’s debut, In a Dark, Dark Wood (Harvill Secker, £12.99), which begins with a woman, Leonora, regaining consciousness after an accident. The events leading up to it are revealed in a series of flashbacks, seen through Leonora’s eyes, as her solitary, well-ordered writer’s life is interrupted by an invitation to an old school friend’s weekend-long hen party. Leonora hasn’t seen Clare in ten years, and is dismayed to discover that her old BFF, the prettiest, most popular, and most manipulative girl in the class, has never really managed to leave the playground behind. Now, her acolyte is the alarmingly intense Florence, and as the party is being held at an isolated house in rural Northumberland, the atmosphere gets pretty eerie pretty quickly. Even though it’s easy to guess what’s going to happen, some excellent characterisation gives the ending a mesmerising, slow-motion-car-crash appeal.
Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan (Soho Crime, £7.99) is not only the author’s first novel, it’s also considered to be the first work of Filipino crime fiction. It’s basically a good, old-fashioned serial killer novel (first person italics for the killer, third person roman for everything else) set in Quezon City. The narrative is serviceable, but what’s extremely interesting is the glimpse into a conservative and pious society, full of obstructive officials, both clerical and secular, who are more interested in preserving the status quo than they are in revealing uncomfortable truths. They, and the killer, are outsmarted by a dogged pair who are a welcome addition to the ranks of ecclesiastical sleuths: forensic anthropologist Father Gus Saenz and psychologist Father Jerome Lucero.
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Mulholland Books, £12.99) is the first book in a projected series by Vaseem Khan. An entertaining ‘feelgood’ read in the tradition of Alexander McCall Smith, it introduces Inspector Ashwin Chopra who, on the eve of his retirement from the Mumbai police, finds himself in receipt of a very dejected baby elephant, courtesy of his late uncle. As if having to deal with the doleful pachyderm isn’t enough, Chopra’s last case, that of a young man who drowned in mysterious circumstances, continues to trouble him. Fearing that his successor won’t bother to investigate it properly, he decides to tackle the matter as a civilian. Chopra, diligent, incorruptible and not entirely at ease with shiny new India, is a delight, as is his redoubtable wife, Poppy – and Ganesh the elephant, once he’s cheered up a bit, proves a very useful ally indeed. Utterly charming – those in search of a gentle holiday read need look no further.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2015