Book reviews for January 2015

Set in Cardiff’s art world, Black Valley by Charlotte Williams (Macmillan £14.99) starts with artist Elinor Powell consulting psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew about claustrophobia, following the death of her mother during a robbery at her studio. Elinor comes from an artistic family who claim to be related to Augustus and Gwen John, and her dealer brother-in-law, Blake, has discovered an as-yet-unknown painter he hopes will take the art world by storm: the elusive Hefin Morris, a former miner with a backstory that fits the myth of the lone, untutored genius a bit too neatly and whose darkly evocative canvases symbolise Wales’s lost industrial heritage. When Blake is killed, it becomes clear that there’s a major scam taking place, but what is it? Although the mystery element here is fairly straightforward, what’s utterly gripping is the psychologically acute depiction of the slowly crumbling Chinese wall between Jessica’s personal and professional life as she struggles to adjust to single motherhood and her new, and possibly compromised, art consultant partner. This is the second in Charlotte Williams’s series featuring Jessica Mayhew and, sadly, the last, as this extremely talented author died earlier in the year.

German defence lawyer and short story writer Ferdinand von Schirach’s second novel, The Girl Who Wasn’t There (translated by Anthea Bell, Little, Brown £12.99) is written in a beautifully understated style which matches his protagonists’ detached and rather abstracted view of life. The first part of the novel deals with Sebastian von Eschburg, born to estranged parents in a grand but neglected mansion full of mouldering taxidermy, who becomes a photographer and maker of provocative art installations. Approximately halfway through, the novel does an abrupt left turn to focus on the lawyer, Konrad Biegler, who will defend von Eschburg when he is accused of murdering an unidentified and undiscovered young woman. The facts remain elusive but, if you can bypass the implausibility of the case actually getting to court, what follows is fascinating. As is often the case with this author, the defendant is unforthcoming about why he committed the crime, if crime there is…. An examination of the disconnection between truth and reality that is tantalising and disturbing in equal measure.

There’s a different take on illusions in The Zig Zag Girl (Quercus, £16.99), the first standalone novel from Elly Griffiths, author of the highly acclaimed Ruth Galloway series. Set in 1950, in the raffish and seedy Brighton of theatrical digs, Number Three tours and the dying days of variety bills, it begins with the discovery of the head and legs of a girl who has been cut into three in the manner of the eponymous magic trick. When her torso is delivered to him personally, DI Edgar Stephens consults Max Mephisto, a comrade from his army days, when they served together in a special unit known as the ‘Magic Men’, whose purpose was to create illusions in order to confuse the Luftwaffe. Max identifies the dead girl as a former assistant, and when Tony, a ‘Magic Man’ turned mind-reader, is found dead in the manner of another trick, it becomes clear that there is a link to the past. With a labyrinthine plot, a splendid reveal and superb evocation of the wafer-thin veneer of glamour at the bottom end of show business, this is thoroughly enjoyable.

Despite the fact that the words ‘gritty realism’ now seem as inextricably linked as inseparably conjoined twins, actual realism is, more often than not, less gritty than messy, inconsequential and arse-achingly dull. At almost 600 pages, bestseller Stuart MacBride’s latest novel The Missing and the Dead (HarperCollins, £16.99), in which he attempts ‘to convey realistically what divisional Scottish policing is like on the ground’ is a hefty as well as a risky undertaking. Relocated to rural Aberdeenshire, Logan McRae is spending his time rounding up escaped cows, placating dotty old ladies, trying to stop the local graffiti artist decorating billboards with giant willies and keeping tabs on the local drug dealers. The central storyline, expertly woven in and out of all this, is the hunt for the killer of an unidentified little girl whose body is found washed up just outside Banff. The result is some slackening of tension – MacBride’s novels are usually fairly humming with it – but so skilful is the storytelling, and so strong the characterisation, that the result is a window onto the world of some old friends that proves both intriguing and engrossing.

The Locked-Room Mysteries (Corvus, £19.99), an anthology edited by Otto Penzler, is also, at a wrist-spraining 3lbs 2oz, a big hunk of book, with authors ranging from the well-known (Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King) to the obscure (Nicholas Olde and Vincent Cournier, anyone?). However, the concern here isn’t credibility, but – with crimes ranging from the mind-bending to the surreal – sheer, unadulterated fun. With a short biography of each author, this is perfect fodder for those long winter evenings.

(c) Laura Wilson 2014