Australian author Chris Hammer’s second novel, Silver (Wildfire, £16.99), picks up journalist Martin Scarsden’s career a few months after the events detailed in the author’s impressive debut, Scrublands, which won this year’s Crime Writers Association John Creasey Award for Best First Novel. Scarsden has been writing a book about why a priest in the outback opened fire on his congregation before being shot dead himself, and he is now about to set up home with Mandalay Blonde, the woman he met while he was investigating the crimes. They’re planning to move to Port Silver on the coast of New South Wales, the town where he grew up and where – by a fairly hefty coincidence – she has inherited a large, rundown property. Arriving at their rented house, Scarsden finds the corpse of local estate agent Jasper Speight, and a dazed Mandalay with blood on her hands. As he starts to try and prove her innocence, plenty of old grievances and tensions over land ownership come to light, and it’s clear that his own disturbing past isn’t going to stay buried, either… Richly descriptive, with a large and well-drawn cast, this is an immersive and enjoyable novel that lives up to the promise of its predecessor.
Another Antipodean coastal town with plenty of secrets is the setting for a first venture into romantic suspense from paranormal romance author Nalini Singh. A Madness of Sunshine (Gollancz, £14.99) is set on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, in the largely Maori* town of Golden Cove. Shocked by the sudden death of her husband and the subsequent discovery of his perfidy, classical pianist Anahera Rawiri returns from London to lick her wounds and gets to know policeman Will Gallagher, a new arrival with plenty of his own baggage. She acts as a bridge between him and a community that has little trust in either outsiders or authority when local teenage beauty Miriama goes missing, reviving memories of three female hikers who disappeared 15 years earlier and were never found. Although neither the police procedure nor the characterization, particularly of the myriad male suspects – Gallagher appears to be the only half-decent man in the entire place – is wholly believable, this is an atmospheric read with a compelling sense of the spectacular and rugged landscape.
Beyond Recall (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) is, by my reckoning, Gerald Seymour’s 36th book. His 1975 debut, Harry’s Game, was set in Belfast during the Troubles, and since then he’s written novels about strife in places as diverse as Afghanistan, South Africa and Guatemala. Here, it’s the Arctic city of Murmansk, virtually sunless in winter and ‘big on sexually transmitted disease, ferocious seasonal mosquitos, drug abuse and the architecture of Stalin, Kruschev and Brezhnev’. Traumatized former special operative Gaz, one of two remaining witnesses to an appalling atrocity in a Syrian village, is dispatched there by MI6 operative Knacker – one of the old guard, who is acting very much off his own bat – to work with a third-generation sleeper in order to identify the man who oversaw the massacre. Meanwhile, Jasha, a veteran of the Soviet army who lives in an isolated cabin on the tundra, forms a friendship of sorts when he helps a wounded bear… Although the choppy style, all splice commas and dropped pronouns, takes a bit of getting used to, it’s well worth the effort for an old-school but highly enjoyable thriller.
Although she beat John Le Carre** to the 1961 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger, Mary Kelly (1927-2017) has been largely forgotten, so it’s good to learn that one of her novels, The Christmas Egg (British Library, £8.99), originally published in 1958, has been re-issued. Inspector Brett Nightingale is called to a squalid Islington flat on the 22nd December, where elderly Russian refugee Princess Olga Karukhina lies dead. The circumstances are suspicious, with an empty trunk under the bed leading Nightingale to believe that valuable objects hoarded from the deceased’s imperial past, have been stolen. Darker and more psychologically acute than much conventional Golden Age fare, with less reliance on the puzzle element, The Christmas Egg has a surprising amount of action as the quest for the treasures becomes ever more dangerous.
Lastly, in a category all its own, The Lammisters (No Alibis Press, £16.99) is a metafictional tale of bootleggers and starlets on the run from the LAPD in 1920s Hollywood, their exploits fueled by bathtub hooch swigged from teacups. Yes, there’s a plot, but that’s not really the point because the book is written in the discursive manner of Laurence Sterne with an over-anxious, officious narrator who is soon forced to admit that he is having difficulty keeping tabs on what’s going on. A triumph of absurdity which burlesques the literary canon from Shakespeare, Alexander Pope and Jane Austen to Flann O’Brien, Damon Runyan and PG Wodehouse, so that the act of reading becomes a detective story in itself, The Lammisters is very clever indeed, and its central hypothesis – that the world might be a better place if everyone would make a little more effort to get along – makes it perfect reading for the season of goodwill.
© Laura Wilson, 2019
*Maori – line over the ‘a’
** Carre – accent over the ‘e’