Told in diary entries and letters, Andrew Martin’s latest novel, Soot (Corsair, £14.99), is set in York at the end of the eighteenth century, a time when shades, or silhouettes, were the latest thing in portraiture. Fletcher Rigge, languishing in a debtors’ prison, is bailed by the louche Captain Harvey on condition that he find the murderer of his shade painter father, who has been fatally stabbed with his own scissors. The evidence points to one of Matthew Harvey’s last sitters as the culprit, and Rigge has a month to discover which; failure to do so will mean reincarceration. As well as being a skilfully constructed whodunnit, Soot is an impeccably researched and wonderfully atmospheric evocation of Georgian England, from the snow-covered streets of York to the waspish salons of literary London, taking in everything from fashionable gatherings to slums. Vivid and pungent, with plenty of grotesquery and dry humour, it’s a virtuoso performance from a master of historical crime fiction.
Ausma Zehanat Khan’s award-winning debut novel, The Unquiet Dead (No Exit Press, £7.99) has its roots in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – specifically, the 1995 massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, a place which had the status of a UN-protected ‘safe area’ – and the text is interspersed with real testimony from war crimes trials. In the present day, Esa Khattak, second-generation Canadian Muslim and head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section, is tasked with investigating the death of wealthy businessman Christopher Drayton. On discovering that Drayton is, in fact, Drazen Krstic, former lieutenant colonel in the Bosnian Serb Army and overseer of horrendous war crimes, Khattak realises that the death might not have been the accident that it first appeared. Although somewhat uneven – the dead man’s avaricious fiancée seems to belong in a different book, as does the femme fatale who almost wrecked Khattak’s career – The Unquiet Dead is a powerful and haunting story.
Ruth Ware’s third psychological thriller, The Lying Game (Harvill Secker, £12.99), reprises the themes of her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood – female friendships and guilty secrets. After seventeen years, a text summons old friends Isla, Fatima and Thea back to Salten on the South coast, where they attended boarding school and where the fourth member of the quartet, Kate, daughter of the art teacher, still lives. The others haven’t been back since they were expelled, but now a human bone has been found in the marshes, and the lies the girls told the authorities and, it turns out, each other, are about to be exposed. There are no high-octane thrills here, and the mystery itself is fairly straightforward, but well-drawn, complex characters and the delicate, merciless filleting of tensions and loyalties will keep you turning the pages.
In her first standalone crime novel, Give Me the Child (HQ, £12.99), Mel McGrath, author of the splendid Edie Kiglatuk series, relocates from the High Arctic to South London, where the danger comes not from ice storms and marauding polar bears, but from something more subtle and insidious: the very people one should be able to trust – including oneself. Child psychologist Cat Lupo hasn’t felt entirely safe inside her own head since the psychotic episodes she suffered during pregnancy, and she is still feeling the repercussions of a case that went tragically wrong, leaving her professional reputation in tatters. When little Ruby Winter arrives at her house one night, brought by police, Cat discovers that the girl is the result of a one-night stand her husband had with a woman who has died unexpectedly, poisoned by a faulty boiler. She agrees to take Ruby in, but soon begins to suspect that there is something very wrong with the girl, and that she may pose a danger to her own daughter, Freya – but then again, it could just be paranoia… McGrath expertly ratchets up the tension for a multi-layered, intelligent mystery with an ending that’ll have your heart racing.
In recent years, there have been several successful crime fiction plots focussing on loss of memory, including Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson (amnesia) and Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante (Alzheimer’s). Felicia Yap’s debut novel, Yesterday (Wildfire, £12.99), employs the device in a dystopian setting: England, 2015, where a protein responsible for long-term memory is genetically inhibited for some at 23 and others at 18. This has created a two-tier society, composed of the elite ‘Duos’, who have two-day memories, and the ‘Mono’ remainder, who can only remember one day. Both Duos and Monos are expected to get around this problem by keeping diaries as reminders. This is an ingenious and intriguing premise; unfortunately, the characters’ ability to remember the ‘facts’ stored in these diaries for longer periods rather undermines it, as do the unimaginative revenge narrative, cartoonish characterisation and stilted prose.

© Laura Wilson, 2017