Johannesburg, a turbulent city with a fearsome reputation for lawlessness, is fertile ground for a crime writer, and in her first novel, South African author MD Villiers makes the most of it. Siphiwe, a 19-year-old orphan plagued by nightmares about the brutal killing of his older brother, witnesses the stabbing of a mango-seller and promises to find her son, who is in hiding. In doing so, he finds himself in the middle of a turf war between two vicious crime lords, Nigerian Sylvester Abaju and recently returned local gangster McCarthy Letswe. Strong and vivid, with tight control of the material, City of Blood (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is really the coming-of-age story of both Siphiwe, who is guided by the formidable Grace, ‘mother’ of the shelter where he lives and the novel’s moral core, and the slightly older Progress, an apprentice gangster keen to make his mark who finds himself dangerously in thrall to Letswe’s beautiful mistress, Lucille. As might be expected, there’s plenty of action, but also, amidst the chaos and carnage, a sense of redemption and hope for the future.
Unlike Johannesburg, Goa, colonised by Nirvana-seeking hippies, has a reputation as a sun-kissed lotus-land, albeit slightly tarnished by the rape and murder of British teenager Scarlett Keeling in 2008. This case, which is still awaiting closure, was the trigger for Kishwar Desai’s third novel, The Sea of Innocence (Simon & Schuster, £12.99). Desai won the 2010 Costa First Novel Award for Witness the Night, which dealt with female infanticide, and here, she looks at the issue of violence against women and what can happen when a traditional Indian community becomes economically dependent on western hedonism. Her tough, unconventional protagonist, social worker-cum-amateur detective Simran Singh, is enjoying a holiday with her teenage daughter when she receives a video on her phone showing a blonde teenager being molested by a group of Indian men. The girl, Liza Kay, is missing, and Simran, asked to conduct an unofficial investigation, discovers that nobody is willing to talk to her. Even Liza’s own sister is evasive, and soon, Simran finds herself under threat. Despite the ‘summary’ feel of the last chapters, this is an intriguing detective story as well as a sobering tale of trouble in paradise.
There’s not much peace and love in evidence in William McIlvanney’s Glasgow, where the teenage daughter of a local hard man has been found murdered in a park. The killing is investigated by Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, bloody-minded, intellectual, isolated and a maverick… If all of this seems very familiar, it’s because literary novelist and poet McIlvanney is also the father of Scottish noir, and he invented the character. First published in 1977, and now re-issued, Laidlaw (Canongate, £7.99), is a classic of the genre – a maelstrom of gangland violence, brutal sentimentality, sectarianism and verbal as well as physical fisticuffs, told in richly Gothic prose. If you only read one crime novel this year, this should be it – but you’ll undoubtedly want to read the other two books in the trilogy, which will be published in a couple of months’ time.
Jack Laidlaw has a host of fictional children, including Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and TV cop Jim Taggart, and Natural Causes (Penguin, £7.99) by James Oswald is the first outing for their newest brother, Edinburgh-based Detective Inspector Tony McLean. A bestselling self-published e-book is, unfortunately, no guarantee of quality, but Oswald, who runs a livestock farm in Fife, is a notable exception. Here, the causes of death are anything but natural – the novel opens with a young woman being appallingly mutilated in a ritual killing. When her body is discovered, six decades later, it’s treated as a cold case until McLean starts to wonder if it might be linked to a spate of spectacularly bloody murders of prominent citizens. An assured, solid police procedural with an appealing protagonist and a strong cast, this is an excellent start to what promises to be a fine series.
The eleventh outing for bestseller Mark Billingham’s policeman, Tom Thorne – The Dying Hours (Little, Brown, £16.99) – sees the poor man not only demoted from the Murder Squad and back in uniform, but banished from his beloved north London to Lewisham. Now ensconced with girlfriend Helen Weeks and her son Alfie in Tulse Hill, his working life consists of breaking up disturbances outside kebab shops and investigating reports of dogging when he becomes suspicious about the deaths of an elderly couple who appear to have perished in a suicide pact. These are not the only mysterious suicides, and, after crossing swords with the local CID, dogged Thorne decides to go it alone, calling in favours from old friends at Colindale to pursue an unofficial investigation. Expertly crafted, with a nicely-judged build up of tension and a slam-dunk ending, The Dying Hours is a terrific read.