Book reviews for February 2015

Ever since she won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for her first novel, Blacklands, Belinda Bauer’s work has been both inventive and surprising, and her sixth novel, The Shut Eye (Bantam Press, £14.99), is no exception. Misanthropic DCI John Marvel is haunted by the case of 12 year-old Edie Evans, who vanished a year earlier on her way to school, and furious when he is taken off a murder enquiry and tasked with finding the Superintendent’s wife’s missing poodle. Ever since Anna Buck’s five-year-old son Daniel went missing, she has been obsessively cleaning and polishing the last evidence of him – footprints left in wet cement. Anna, her psyche buckling under the appallingly cruel combination of despair and hope, is prepared to try anything to get her child back, including engaging the services of psychic Richard Latham, and it is under his dubious auspices that the two strands of the story start to come together. It’s an intricate plot, extremely moving in some places – Bauer’s ability to get under the skins of her characters is second to none – and, although some of the connections feel a little tenuous, the solution is, by and large, satisfactory, with not too much left dangling and unexplained by human agency.

Set in and around Brighton, Rebecca Whitney’s debut novel The Liar’s Chair (Mantle, £12.99) is the tale of a toxic marriage. David and Rachel are outwardly happy and prosperous, but he’s a control freak and a cokehead and she’s having an affair with his dealer. When, still drunk after a night with her lover, Rachel kills a man in a hit-and-run accident, David insists on destroying all the evidence and carrying on as usual. Rachel, whose guilt over the death triggers suppressed childhood memories, becomes increasingly self-destructive in her behaviour as she tries to break out of her psychological prison, while
David takes ever more drastic measures to retain his dominance over his previously compliant wife. Some readers may take exception to the fact that none of the characters appear to have any redeeming features – although Rachel has been damaged by her swinger parents, she is very much the architect of her own misfortunes – and others may be put off by Whitney’s overwrought language, which occasionally topples over into incomprehensibility. However, there’s no doubt that The Liar’s Chair is both compelling and unsettling.

The Little Old Lady Who Struck Lucky Again by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury (Pan, £7.99) continues the adventures of 79-year-old criminal mastermind-cum-philanthropist Martha Andersson and her League of Pensioners from the bestselling The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules. After an Ocean’s Eleven-style Las Vegas casino heist using motorised wheelchairs, the geriatric gang return to Stockholm and settle down to think up more wealth-redistribution schemes, only to find themselves running into trouble with the biker gang who live up the hill. Like its predecessor, The Little Old Lady Who Struck Lucky Again is essentially a caper novel in the Ealing Comedy mould, gently humorous and pleasantly daft, if a little long-winded in places.

Another Scandinavian crime novel with a difference, Satellite People by Hans Olav Lahlum, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson (Mantle, £16.99) is the second book to feature Inspector Kolbjorn* Kristiansen, known as K2. Set in Oslo in 1969, it is a traditional closed-circle mystery: wealthy businessman Magdalon Schelderup dies in suspicious circumstances while giving a dinner party, the day after phoning Kristiansen to say that his life is in danger. The eponymous satellite people are the ten dinner guests, who include ex-wives, grown-up children, employees and old friends, any one of whom may have a motive for murder. The solution is ingenious, and the investigation, with leads stretching back to the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War, certainly holds the attention, but K2 himself remains an oddly colourless individual, who leaves the Poirotesque deduction to his unofficial partner, the enigmatic, wheelchair bound Patricia.

Winner of New Zealand’s Ned Kelly and Ngaio Marsh awards, Paul Thomas is the author of a series featuring Maori policeman Tito Ihaka. At the beginning of the latest, Fallout (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99), Thomas sets several hares running: a cold case involving 17-year-old Polly Stenson, found strangled the morning after a plutocrat’s election-night party; a disgraced ex-copper tasked with finding political fixer and high-level con-artist Eddie Brightside, who appears to have vanished without trace; and information given to Ihaka about his late father Jimmy, a trade unionist, renegade Marxist and fully paid-up member of the awkward squad, suggesting that his untimely death was not, as previously thought, due to natural causes. The various plotlines are adroitly woven into an eye-poppingly complicated whole in this sharp, unexpectedly funny police procedural with a cast of engaging characters, not least the maverick Ihaka himself.

© Laura Wilson, 2015