Laura Lippman’s homage to the hardboiled, morally ambiguous novels of James M. Cain, Sunburn (Faber & Faber, £14.99), has the texture and many of the tropes of classic American noir but is set in 1995. Tired of her loveless marriage and limited horizons, beautiful redhead Polly Costello walks out on husband Gregg and young daughter Jani during a beach holiday and fetches up in the one-horse town of Belleville, Delaware, where she takes a job in the High-Ho bar-slash-restaurant. Here, she meets Adam Bosk, and a flirtation commences. It soon becomes clear that Adam knows more about Polly than he is letting on, and that Polly’s past is infinitely more complicated than either Adam or Gregg realise, and the skeletons in the cupboard begin to pile perilously high… Lippman uses multiple narrators and controls the flow of information masterfully for a tantalising, ingeniously-constructed page-turner.
Righteous by Joe Ide (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99) picks up where the author’s award-winning first novel, IQ, left off: Isaiah Quintabe is still living in East Long Beach, California, solving the minor problems of his neighbourhood and obsessing over the mysterious death of his older brother Marcus. Just as he begins to make progress, Sarita Van, who was Marcus’s fiancée and for whom Isaiah has long held a torch, asks him to find her sister. Janine is a Las Vegas DJ who, together with her loser boyfriend, has run up gambling debts, and the pair are being pursued by a loan shark. Isaiah persuades his friend Dodson – a former criminal who is the Watson to his Sherlock Holmes – to help, and the pair find themselves up against a cast of criminals including sex traffickers, Chinese mobsters and money launderers – some of whom have disturbing information about Marcus’s death. Witty and confident, with a bustling plot and a protagonist who is both original and appealing, Righteous is a worthy follow-up to Ide’s excellent debut.
The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh (Faber & Faber, £7.99) is a well-written blend of the science-fiction, Western and crime genres. Caesura, a.k.a The Blinds, is a small, isolated Texas town whose population consists of criminals or witnesses to crime who have opted into an experimental programme. Their memories wiped, they have been allowed to choose new identities (one name to be taken from a list of vice presidents, the other from a list of film stars). It’s a second chance, of sorts – but anyone who tries to leave ends up dead. Nobody in the town has a gun except for Sherriff Calvin Cooper, so it’s a puzzle when two people are shot. The first death seems to be suicide and the second the result of a bar fight, and Cooper is reluctantly drawn into an investigation by an eager new deputy. Intrusions from the outside world up the ante, and the uneasy, amnesiac peace is violently shattered. Although Sternbergh’s tendency to over-flag his intentions undermines some of the suspense, an intriguing premise, strong narrative hooks and a brisk pace make this a riveting read.
Cathi Unsworth’s latest novel, That Old Black Magic (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99) blends fact and fiction for a well-researched and evocative tale about one of the weirder outposts of Second World War British intelligence. When a captured German spy is found to have a satanic amulet in his possession together with a photograph of his female contact, undercover policeman Ross Spooner is tasked with finding the woman, who – according to his boss – might be a witch. A second storyline involves the real medium Helen Duncan who, in 1944, was the last person to be imprisoned under the now-repealed British Witchcraft Act of 1735 (more because she appeared to be disseminating classified information about the torpedoing of a ship than because the authorities feared her going full-on Harry Potter). A labyrinthine plot with a nod to Dennis Wheatley interweaves imagined characters with historical figures such as credulous journalist Hannen Swaffer and ‘ghost hunter’ Harry Price.
The shade of Muriel Spark, whose centenary year it is, hovers over Olga Wojtas’s debut novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar (Contraband, £8.99). Erudite, unflappable Morningside librarian Shona McMonagle spends her days trying to keep The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie out of the hands of borrowers because of the damage she feels it has done to the reputation of her alma mater, The Marcia Blaine School for Girls. When she receives a surprise visit from 200-year-old Miss Blaine herself, she doesn’t bat an eyelid, but agrees to go to nineteenth-century Russia on an unspecified mission as part of a time-travelling scheme that enables former pupils to extend their altruistic efforts across the centuries. Being an accomplished linguist, musician and martial artist, Shona has plenty of resources to draw upon, but, finding herself thrust into a bewildering milieu of haughty aristocrats and grovelling serfs, and not even sure of which year it is, she repeatedly gets hold of the wrong end of the stick about what she’s supposed to be doing: a delightful addition to the ranks of comic crime, combining sharp observation with a lightness of touch.
© Laura Wilson, 2018