Seldom has a character bounced off the page with as much raw vitality as Freedom Oliver, the central character in Jax Miller’s first novel, Freedom’s Child (HarperCollins, £12.99). Freedom isn’t her real name: she’s in the Witness Protection Programme, working in a biker bar in a small town in Oregon, drinking until she blacks out. Once, she was Nessa Delany from Long Island, accused of killing her abusive husband, NYPD officer Mark, and having to give her son and daughter up for adoption in order to keep them out of the clutches of his truly appalling family. It’s Mark’s brother Matthew who is actually convicted of his murder and, eighteen years later and newly released from prison, he wants revenge. Brash and savagely witty, with poor impulse control and a heart aching with guilt, Freedom heads for Kentucky on a stolen motorbike, determined to re-connect with her children, both of whom have been adopted by the leader of a Christian doomsday cult, before Matthew and his remaining siblings do. Despite some overly hectic plotting towards the end, there’s absolutely no doubt that this is one of the stand-out debuts of the year.
Equally memorable, although for entirely different reasons, is Raymond Verleaux, protagonist of The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson (Salt, £8.99). Affectless, depressive and – unsurprisingly – lonely, Raymond’s life is a dreary trudge between his workplace, where he’s constantly passed over for promotion, and his flat, where he consumes meals-for-one and medication washed down with pills and masturbates over online sex chat. He travels to Thailand to acquire a bride in the form of sex worker Joy and brings her home to Belgium where she embarks on a career in the porn industry and is subsequently murdered, and he moves into his dead father’s coastal villa which, being eroded by the sea and swarming with insects and rats, is not perhaps the subtlest of metaphors for the parallel deterioration of its inhabitant’s mental and physical state. Written in a spare, dissociated style, with not so much a plot as a sequence of events (including a fair amount of wearily squalid hard-core explicitness), The Beginning of the End certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, but those who enjoy a good, bleak tale of anomie and alienation can’t go wrong – I found it utterly captivating.
Those who prefer a protagonist with moral authority would do well to try Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series. The Drowned Boy, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker £12.99) is the eleventh book to feature the old-fashioned, mild-mannered policeman. Here, he is called to the scene of a drowning – Tommy, a 16-month-old boy with Down’s Syndrome, has been found dead in a pond – which his colleague feels may not be the accident that Carmen, his mother, claims it is. Sejer also thinks that there’s something that ‘doesn’t feel right’ about the pretty, over-entitled nineteen-year-old Carmen, and is torn between this instinct and the fact that grief and shock can take people in different ways. Meanwhile, the fault lines in both Carmen’s marriage to Tommy’s father Nicolai and her relationship with her doting father begin to appear… A simple but gripping story, balanced, believable and compassionate, about a sensitive subject.
A Book of Scars (Quercus, £19.99) by William Shaw is the third novel to feature DS Cathal Breen and the now ex-WPC Helen Tozer. It’s 1969, and Breen and Tozer are trying to solve the murder, five years earlier, of Tozer’s sixteen-year-old sister Alexandra on the family’s Devon farm. They discover that the full, horrific details of the killing have been kept from the family, and, shortly thereafter, the original investigating officer is brutally despatched in the same manner as poor Alexandra. Suspicion falls on Tozer, but it soon becomes clear to Breen that the case has its roots in the euphemistically-named ‘Kenya Emergency’ which took place over a decade earlier. A Book of Scars is both a first-rate mystery and a compelling and accurate portrait of a changing society that is confused about the present and ill-at-ease with the past.
The past also impacts on the present – although with a closer focus – in In Bitter Chill, the first novel by Sarah Ward (Faber & Faber, £12.99). Genealogist Rachel Jones is the survivor of two schoolgirls who were kidnapped in 1978, but she has very little memory of the event and can throw no light on why her friend, Sophie Jenkins, disappeared, or who might have been responsible. When, thirty-seven years later, Sophie’s mother is found dead in a local hotel, the police are unsure whether the apparent suicide is linked to the earlier tragedy, and Rachel, who has struggled to put the past behind her, is forced to re-examine what happened. Set in a claustrophobic small town in Derbyshire, this promising, if somewhat uneven, debut is a genuinely intriguing Chinese puzzle box of a mystery about family secrets.
(c) Laura Wilson 2015