A closed world murder mystery inside a postapocalyptic thriller, The Last by Hanna Jameson (Viking, £12.99) is set in a remote Swiss hotel. American historian Jon Keller, there for a conference, reads about the end of the world on the internet. Nuclear attacks take out major cities and destroy communications until the twenty people remaining at L’Hotel Sixieme believe that they may be the only survivors on the planet. Facing food shortages, possible radiation sickness, and despair, the inhabitants also have to contend with the fact that the body of a girl, apparently killed before the catastrophe, has been found in one of the water tanks. Jon, who takes it upon himself to provide a historic record of events, is determined to find the killer. Although it’s a fascinating exploration of a word in which ‘consequences no longer existed’, The Last is rather less successful as a crime narrative, due to a hasty and not entirely coherent ending.
To Kill the Truth by Sam Bourne (Quercus, £12.99) deals with a more specific apocalypse: the demolition of history, with libraries burnt and digital records destroyed in computerised attacks. The premise, if far-fetched, is both intriguing and, in the current climate of post-truth, fake news and sour populism, grimly topical. Former White House troubleshooter Maggie Costello gets caught up in the race to stop the destruction when she is tasked with looking into the death of a professor who specialises in the history of slavery. A propulsive plot and an appealing heroine – series character Maggie is game, smart and, it must be said, miraculously non-flammable – make up for serviceable and sometimes clumsy writing.
Jane Harper’s third novel, The Lost Man (Little Brown, £12.99) is another splendid slice of Outback Noir. The setting is an isolated Queensland cattle station, where the Bright family are responsible for a vast acreage of parched and dusty land on the edge of the desert.
When Cameron Bright is found dead from dehydration beside a local landmark, nine kilometres away from where his well-stocked Land Cruiser is parked, everyone is baffled. The assumption is suicide, but older brother Nathan – ostracised by the sparse local population for reasons that become clear as Harper spools out his backstory – isn’t convinced. After an uncomfortable return to the family home, he discovers that the rest of his family have secrets to hide… Fabulously atmospheric, with a slow start that gradually picks up pace towards a jaw-dropping denouement.
Geography and weather in the shape of snow and mountains impede the investigation in Ilaria Tuti’s Italian bestseller Flowers Over the Inferno (translated by Ekin Oklap, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99). The first in a trilogy featuring Detective Superintendent Teresa Battaglia, it’s set in a quiet village in the Italian Alps, where a naked man, found with his eyes gouged out, is the first in a string of gruesome murders and assaults. Flashbacks to an experiment conducted at a mysterious Austrian orphanage in the 1970s make it clear that the roots of the mystery lie in the past, and it falls to Battaglia, who has a background in criminal profiling, to join the dots. It’s all creepy and evocative enough – albeit with a tendency to melodrama – but what gives this novel particular appeal is the dogged sixty-something central character, whose abrasive manner hides a warm heart; survivor of an abusive relationship, she now finds herself battling against the encroachments of old age as well as fighting her corner in a male-dominated profession.
The much-trumpeted debut novel from screenwriter Alex Michaelides, The Silent Patient (Orion, £12.99), is the story of convicted killer Alicia Berenson, an artist who apparently tied her husband to a chair and shot him repeatedly in the face, before retreating into silence. Psychotherapist Theo Faber applies for a job at the institution where she is held in the hope of making her speak, and the narrative alternates between his account of the proceedings and Alicia’s diary, as doctor/patient boundaries begin to blur. Although it’s fairly obvious from the off that that there’s more to Faber’s motivation than mere fascination with a notorious case, the eventual sleight of hand is deft; however, the sheer level of contrivance may well leave readers feeling that this is a novel that fails to live up to the hype.
Novelist and biographer John Williams has returned, under the pseudonym John Lincoln, to his favourite fictional stomping ground, Cardiff. Fade to Grey (No Exit Press, £11.99) is the first in a projected series featuring Gethin Grey of miscarriage-of-justice-investigators Last Resort Legals. Having read the bestselling memoir by convicted murderer Ismail Mohammed, aka Izma M, former film star Amelia Laverne becomes convinced that he is innocent and is prepared to pay Gethin handsomely in order to prove it. However, Izma seems less than happy to co-operate, and it soon begins to look as if Ms Laverne’s agenda may be less altruistic than personal… A strong cast of characters – particularly Gethin, who is freighted with the requisite personal baggage, much of it self-inflicted – coupled with slick writing and plenty of action gets what promises to be an excellent series off to a flying start.
© Laura Wilson, 2019