Inspired by the serial killer thought to have been responsible for twelve murders in New Orleans between 1918 and 1919, Ray Celestin’s first novel, The Axeman’s Jazz (Mantle, £16.99), initially stays close to the known facts and includes a letter, published in the newspapers at the time, which was supposedly sent by the original Axeman. The writer, who, like the author of the famous 1888 ‘Jack the Ripper’ letter, gives his address as ‘Hell’, promises to claim his next victim at a specific date and time but says that he will spare those ‘in whose home a jazz band is in full swing’. As with the Ripper, the real killer’s identity remains unknown, and Celestin has three characters struggling to work out who he or she might be. Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot heads the official investigation; his former partner, Luca d’Andrea, newly freed from prison for corruption, is tasked by the Mafia to discover whodunit; and nineteen-year-old Sherlock Holmes fan Ida Davis, a secretary for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, decides to branch out on her own. Although it smacks a little of the tourist guide in places, The Axeman’s Jazz manages, nevertheless, to be both a fascinating portrait of a vibrant and volatile city and a riveting read.
Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India and its third most populous city, is the setting for novelist Anita Nair’s first foray into crime fiction, A Cut-Like Wound (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99). The plot – a young man who fantasies about being a hijra and commits murder in drag, pursued by a jaded inspector whose discovery of corruption in influential families put the kibosh on his career – is pretty standard fare. However, Nair captures the seedy side of shiny new India vividly, and Inspector Gowda, with his weary self-knowledge, his secret, wistfully aspirational biker tattoo, his stagnating marriage and his confusion when an old flame re-enters his life, is a welcome addition to the ranks of flawed-but-loveable fictional cops.
Northbourne, the invented South London setting of Alex Marwood’s The Killer Next Door (Sphere, £6.99), is an area that’s on the up, but, despite the delis and the Yummy Mummies, there are still some houses in multiple occupation. One such is 23 Beulah Grove, where everybody, from Collette with her holdall full of someone else’s cash to reclusive classical music lover Gerard, has something to hide, and where something is very wrong with the drains. This, as anyone familiar with the story of Muswell Hill serial killer Dennis Nilsen will know, is not a good sign, but landlord Roy, who is keen to sell up for a fat profit, is too busy making life hell for seventy-year-old sitting tenant Vera to do anything about it… Taut, assured and reminiscent of Ruth Rendell’s psychological novels, Marwood’s second book more than lives up to the promise shown in her splendid debut, The Wicked Girls.
From Barbara Comyns’s Who was Changed and Who was Dead to Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole, books about mystery plagues tend to be disquieting in the extreme, and Megan Abbott’s latest, The Fever (Picador, £14.99), is no exception. Although the book is less macabre than Comyns’s or Burns’s work, anyone who was (or is) an adolescent girl will know that the weirdest village or creepiest fairytale wood is no match, in terms of horror, for the febrile, hormone-saturated and angst-ridden world that is secondary school. The school in question is Dryden High, situated in an American everysuburb and attended by best friends Deenie, Lise and Gabby. When Lise suffers a violent seizure in class, everyone is mystified. When other girls begin to exhibit the same symptoms, the place is alive with rumour – a bad batch of HPV vaccine, something to with the alarmingly phosphorescent local lake, mass hysteria – until finally, the finger of blame is pointed at Deenie herself. Abbott, whose previous novel, Dare Me, featured a squad of high-school cheerleaders, has a knack for capturing the emotional landscape of the teenage girl in a way that is terrifyingly, appallingly real.
Both hormonal urges and weird villagers abound in Louise Millar’s third novel, The Hidden Girl (Macmillan, £16.99). Former charity worker Hannah, unable to conceive and desperate for a child, has persuaded husband Will to relocate to a tiny hamlet in Suffolk, upsizing to a large but dilapidated house and embarking on an insanely ambitious decorating programme in order to impress the woman from the adoption agency. Will, however, has to return to London for work. The commute is long and, disenchanted with both his new home and his wife’s frenzied state, Will uses heavy snowfalls as an excuse to stay in town, leaving Hannah isolated. Her dawning realisation that her neighbours are deliberately making her life difficult and that she isn’t always alone in her new house makes for a superbly eerie read and prevents this from becoming too much of a heavy-handed ‘issue novel’.
© Laura Wilson, 2014