Parched and crackling after a two-year drought, the Australian town of Kiewarra is the highly combustible setting for Jane Harper’s first novel The Dry (Little, Brown, £12.99). Nature isn’t the only thing that’s dangerous in this small town in the middle of nowhere – when policeman Aaron Falk returns from Melbourne to attend the funeral of childhood friend Luke Hadler, who apparently shot his wife and six-year-old son before turning the gun on himself, he finds a community rife with poverty, alcoholism and despair. It’s Falk’s first visit since he was run out of Kiewarra as a teenager, suspected of killing classmate Ellie Deacon. Many people still believe he’s guilty, and he wants to get out of the place as soon as possible. Hadler’s parents, who have discovered that Falk and their son gave each other false alibis for the day of Ellie’s death, persuade him to stay and investigate, and he finds himself trying to untangle two crimes that occurred twenty years apart. Solid storytelling that, despite a plethora of flashbacks, never loses momentum, strong characterisation and a sense of place so vivid that you can almost feel the blistering heat add up to a remarkably assured debut.
Thomas Rydahl’s first novel, The Hermit (Oneworld, £16.99, translation by K.E. Semmel) which won the prestigious Glass Key award in Denmark, is set on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. The title is something of a misnomer: sixty-something Erhard Jorgensen, an expat Dane, may live in a remote shack with only two goats for company, but, as a taxi-driver-cum-piano-tuner, he’s familiar to many of the islanders. This comes in useful when a car containing a dead baby is found on a beach and Erhard, realising that the PR-conscious authorities are attempting a cover-up in order not to deter tourists, decides to investigate. Although he knows nothing of computers, he calls in favours and finds himself drawn into a web of corruption. The pace may be stately, but a humane and appealing protagonist and plenty of local colour make this an engrossing and enjoyable read.
The Chemist (Sphere, £20.00), by Stephenie Meyer, bestselling author of the Twilight saga, is an awkward, not to say preposterous, hybrid of action thriller and romantic suspense. The eponymous chemist – or, more accurately, torturer – goes by a variety of aliases, but is usually known as Alex. Formerly in the employment of a secret US government agency, she was wont to extract confessions using chemical concoctions of her own devising until, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, her mentor was killed and she was forced to go on the run. At the start of the book, she is hiding out in a variety of heavily booby-trapped locations where she sleeps in a bath while wearing a gas mask and keeps a lot of gadgetry, including a pair of actual killer earrings, close at hand. Despite this, when an old colleague emails her, she agrees to kidnap and force information from schoolteacher Daniel Beach who is, supposedly, part of a plot to release a deadly virus. After subjecting the poor man to considerable agony, she realises that it’s a case of mistaken identity (he has an identical twin) and apologises – whereupon he falls in love with her. After a great deal of moving from place to place and hanging out, together with much canoodling and a makeover sequence, the pace picks up again, but it’s too little, too late, and way too implausible.
Ross Armstrong’s debut The Watcher (Harlequin Mira) begins with a blizzard of attention-seeking staccato sentences – the literary equivalent of being jabbed repeatedly with a compass – but it’s worth persevering for an eerily atmospheric re-working of Hitchcock’s Rear Window set in rapidly gentrifying North London. When troubled birdwatcher Lily turns her binoculars on her neighbours from her new-build flat, she realises that something sinister is happening in the marked-for-demolition block over the way. Elderly neighbour Jean tries to phone Lily just before she is killed, and, when the police are dismissive, Lily decides that she must investigate… An intriguingly unreliable narrator, plenty of suspense and the added bonus of name-spotting fun for Hitchcock aficionados.
While it’s not quite up there with her best (Blacklands, Rubbernecker), fans of Belinda Bauer certainly won’t be disappointed by The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press, £12.99). Not only is Eve Singer struggling to care for her father, who has dementia, but her career as a TV crime reporter is threatened by younger and blonder talent, so, when a serial killer offers her the chance of a scoop, she bites. At first, the killer welcomes the publicity, but when Eve agrees to cooperate with the police in a news blackout, he turns on her. A disturbing, intelligent and, at times, genuinely moving story, The Beautiful Dead is written with subtlety and an impressive lightness of touch.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2016