Laura Wilson takes a reality check amid murder and madness in the best crime fiction

Anyone who fancies a vigorous mental workout to complement their post-Christmas pound-shedding would be well advised to pick up a copy of The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner (Corsair, £7.99). What begins as a compelling but comparatively straight-forward crime story set in Akron, Ohio – bestselling but bereaved author becomes curious about the mysterious death of a local recluse – takes a sharp left turn into the space-time continuum and infinite improbability takes over as events begin to fold in on themselves. Fascinating and utterly unpredictable, with shades of Stephen King and HP Lovecraft as well as Douglas Adams, this extraordinary debut novel never loses touch with the human story of loss, guilt and fate that is at its core.

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press, £14.99) provides a different sort of reality check. In her fourth novel, the author of the outstanding Blacklands turns her attention to altered states of mind, in the form of the Asperger’s Syndrome of Patrick, the eponymous rubbernecker, and a ward full of comatose patients in a Cardiff hospital. Unable to read emotions and lacking access to metaphor, Patrick finds other people baffling, but an obsession with death, begun with the demise of his father, leads him to study anatomy at university in a bid to understand what happens when people cease to be. Meanwhile, lying speechless and motionless in the neurological ward, Sam Galen believes that he has witnessed a doctor murdering the man in the next bed but is unable to tell anybody about it… There’s a third, Roald Dahl-esque storyline involving a lazy and self-centered nurse, and Bauer draws all three strands neatly together at the end for an intelligent, disturbing read.

A seemingly insentient stroke victim is at the heart of Sophie Hannah’s latest novel, The Carrier (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99). Her husband, Tim Breary, has confessed to smothering her with a pillow, but claims to have no idea why he did it. After an apparently chance encounter at an airport with Mrs Breary’s carer, Gaby, who is bossy, sarcastic, super-successful and in love with Tim, sets out to prove his innocence. Told in both epistolary and conventional narrative form, it’s a complicated and sometimes bewildering tale of the power that weakness and passivity can have over strength and action and how of love and duty can lead us astray. The characters, while not likeable, are intriguing, as is the premise, and Hannah does a good job of keeping the large cast in play.

At outset, the confident, well-respected middle-class family in Erin Kelly’s third novel, The Burning Air (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99) appear to be functioning with a reasonable degree of normality, despite the fact that mother Lydia is dying and daughter Sophie, about to give birth to her third child, has just discovered husband Will’s infidelity. However, as with all the best psychological suspense novels, that which is distressing but recognisable gives way to something altogether more unsettling and creepy when the family convene, after Lydia’s death, at their holiday home in a remote corner of Devon. Told by four narrators, The Burning Air, which is Kelly’s most accomplished book to date, is a gripping tale of secrets, revenge and obsession, masterfully told.

The Chessmen by Peter May (Quercus, £14.99) is the final book in his trilogy set on the island of Lewis featuring former policeman Fin MacLeod, who has returned to his roots (in the first title, The Blackhouse) after his son has been killed in a hit-and-run accident, the impact of which has also caused his marriage to disintegrate. Now, employed as head of security by a local landowner, he is reunited with his teenage friend Whistler, a reclusive poacher, carver of chessmen and former member of a local band who subsequently made it big. When an unusual natural phenomenon causes a loch to drain and the wreckage of a light aircraft containing a body is revealed, the two men realise that it must be keyboard player Roddy Mackenzie, who disappeared without trace in his plane seventeen years earlier. There’s enough of Roddy left to tell them that his death was not an accident, and soon an investigation is underway. With the last in any series of novels, narrative housekeeping can often impede the flow of the new story, but May deftly avoids snagging the reader’s attention on rocky outcrops of left-over business, and, as a result, The Chessmen is well up to the high standard of its two predecessors: tightly plotted, with no skimping either the nuances of character or the wonderfully evocative descriptions of the rugged island landscape that have made these books a true pleasure to read.