American author Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel, The Last One (Michael Joseph, £9.99), is a high-concept, high-octane affair that sets out its stall on the first page: wilderness-survival reality TV meets global pandemic. Eager for one last adventure before settling down to start a family, ‘Zoo’, as she is nicknamed by the producers, joins eleven others to compete for a million dollars. There’s no voting contestants off the set in this show; nobody leaves until they admit defeat. Cut off by reality TV from reality, the group have no idea that, during their first week of foraging, fire-starting and orienteering challenges, a mystery disease is wiping out the rest of the population at a rate of knots. Alone on a solo mission, Zoo, determined to stick to the rules and win the prize, searches deserted towns complete with authentic looking (and smelling) corpse ‘props’ for the clues she’s been told to find, unaware that no-one is filming and the audience no longer exists… The conceit is undoubtedly clever and – apart from some overreaching at the end – well executed, but what makes The Last One such a page-turner is Zoo herself: practical, tough-minded and appealing.
The protagonist of Epiphany Jones (Orenda Books, £8.99) also has trouble with reality, albeit for entirely different reasons. It’s fair to say that Michael Grothaus’s first novel, which opens with loner Jerry Dresden masturbating in front of a ‘celebrity porn’ website, won’t be to everyone’s taste. Jerry, who suffers from hallucinations, is top of the list of suspects when one of his colleagues at the Art Institute of Chicago is murdered and a Van Gogh painting is stolen. One of Jerry’s hallucinations turns out to be real – the eponymous Epiphany Jones, who asks for his help in return for providing evidence of his innocence. The novel takes an abrupt left turn from disconcertingly funny to very dark indeed when it’s revealed that Epiphany, who is directed by voices in her head, turns out to be the victim of a brutal trafficker who provides the jaded Hollywood elite with underage girls. Complex, inventive and a genuine shocker, this is the very opposite of a ‘comfort’ read.
Yet another type of unreality is present in Alan Glynn’s latest novel, Paradime (Faber & Faber, £12.99), which plays with the idea of the doppelganger. Traumatised and poor, Danny Lynch has returned to New York after a stint in Afghanistan, where, working as a cook for defence contractor Gideon Logistics, he witnessed a horrific act of violence. In order to keep Danny quiet, the company’s lawyers set him up with a job in one of the city’s smartest restaurants, where he encounters his double, tech billionaire Teddy Trager. He becomes obsessed with this richer, more successful version of himself, dressing like Trager and managing to fool his colleagues and even his girlfriend – and then things start to unravel. Bristling with paranoia, this wheels-within-wheels conspiracy novel is both insidious and ingenious.
Without Trace (twenty7, £7.99) is the debut novel from screenwriter Simon Booker. Investigative journalist Morgan Vine is a single mother who lives with her teenage daughter Lissa in a converted railway carriage on the beach at Dungeness. Her career in the doldrums, Morgan has started a book group at her local prison, partly from altruistic motives, but mainly in order to stay in contact with her childhood sweetheart, Danny Kilcannon. Danny, who was convicted of killing his 14-year-old stepdaughter, is also thought to have murdered his wife, whose body has never been found. Morgan, who still carries a torch for Danny and believes that he is innocent, is pleased when a key witness recants and he is released, but she starts receiving anonymous messages telling her not to trust him – and then Lissa disappears. With believably flawed characters, a strong sense of place, a tense did-he-or-didn’t-he plot and plenty of cliffhangers, Without Trace is an assured start to Booker’s projected series. More, please.
Frederic Dard (1921-2000) was one of France’s most popular and prolific writers of crime fiction, but he is almost unknown in Britain. Pushkin Vertigo is publishing some of his psychological novels, starting with Bird in a Cage (£6.99). Ably translated by David Bellos, it’s the story of Albert Harbin, who returns to his childhood home in Paris after an absence of six years. Unsettled and unsettling, Albert is a cagey narrator, but we soon figure out that he’s been in prison, and that his incarceration was something to do with the fact that the love of his life, Anna, is no longer around. Spotting a woman in a restaurant who resembles Anna, he scrapes an acquaintance, accompanies her home, and ends up in a world of trouble… Melancholy and atmospheric, with a plot twist worthy of Agatha Christie at her devious best, this brief tale has the hallmark of classic French noir.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2016