Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips (Doubleday, £12.99) begins at closing time in a zoo in an
unnamed American city, where Joan is trying to hurry her four-year-old son Lincoln towards the exit. When she spots the dead bodies and realises that the ‘fireworks’ she heard earlier were actually gunshots, Joan’s focus shifts from not getting locked in overnight to keeping herself and her child alive. Over the next few hours, a deadly game of hide and seek is played out, seen from a kaleidoscope of viewpoints that include both the predators and their potential (human) prey. Tense and harrowing, with some extraordinarily haunting moments – the colobus monkey mourning its mate, the slain elephant, and Joan’s thoughts as she attempts to soothe her increasingly tired and fractious boy – this is a powerful and unsettling book.
Lucy Atkins’s third novel, The Night Visitor (Quercus, £14.99), starts with a whoop-de-do launch party for an expected bestseller. The biography, written by historian and TV presenter Olivia Sweetman, is based on a Victorian diary which was discovered in a Sussex manor house by the intense, socially awkward housekeeper, Vivian Tester, who has helped Olivia with her research but wishes to stay out of the limelight. This suits Olivia, who is now seeking to distance herself from her erstwhile assistant, just fine – but Vivian has other plans. She also has secrets – as does Olivia – about previous deceits, which, if they came to light, could seriously derail the latter’s glittering career. The two well-drawn and plausibly-flawed characters pass the narrative baton between them in this complex, creepy and insidious novel about ambition, academic integrity, and – intriguingly – dung beetles.
The first in a projected supernatural crime trilogy, Strange Magic by Syd Moore (Oneworld, £8.99), introduces benefit fraud investigator Rosie Strange, who has inherited the Great Essex Witch Museum from her uncle Septimus. The place is a nightmare of bad waxworks and damp, and Rosie, who doesn’t believe in otherworldly hocus-pocus, is intent on closing it and selling the building, much to the dismay of curator Sam Stone. An eccentric professor throws a spanner in the works when he offers a reward if Rosie and Sam can bring him the remains of witch Ursula Cadence. Cadence was put to death in 1582, but now her skeleton is urgently needed in order to release a boy from demonic possession. Finding it, however, proves easier said than done… Confident, down-to-earth Essex-girl Rosie is an appealing character, and there’s plenty of spooky fun in this spirited genre mash-up, as well as a romantic subplot, folk history and some serious points about how witch-hunting in past centuries was less to do with fear of magic than with scapegoating and misogyny.
In his 14th Tom Thorne mystery, Love Like Blood (Little, Brown, £18.99), Mark Billingham tackles a particularly repugnant contemporary method of controlling wayward women – so-called ‘honour killing’. When DI Nicola Tanner’s partner, teacher Susan Best, is killed in an appallingly brutal manner at the couple’s home, Tanner initially thinks it is a case of mistaken identity: she has worked with the Honour Crimes Unit, and believes herself to have been the intended victim. Sidelined from the case because of her personal involvement and distrustful of the official investigation, she turns to Thorne, mentioning two people she believes to be contract killers. When two Asian teenagers disappear in North London, the girl turning up dead with her missing boyfriend’s semen inside her, Thorne spots a link to a cold case from his past and agrees to help, which he does with his usual mixture of dogged determination, intuition and a penchant for stepping on toes and bending the rules. A sensitive topic delicately handled, with a perfectly executed and thoroughly unnerving twist at the end.
French author Johana Gustawsson has won awards in her native country for her novel Block 46 (translated by Maxim Jakubowski, Orenda Books, £8.99), a time-slip narrative which alternates between Buchenwald Concentration Camp in 1944 and modern-day London and Falkenburg, Sweden, where the mutilated body of jewellery designer Linnea* Blix is discovered. Bodies with similar disfigurements have been found on Hampstead Heath, but as both are boys, the connection is by no means certain. Blix’s friend, true-crime writer Alex Castells, travels to Sweden, and, believing the local police to be on the wrong track, teams up with prickly profiler Emily Roy to solve the mystery. In Buchenwald, inmate Erich Ebner finds himself working on a series of experiments on cadavers. We’re not told exactly what they are, although one can assume that what Churchill called ‘perverted science’ plays a part, but it soon becomes clear that they’re the clue to what’s happening in the present. The somewhat stilted prose and the constant switching of point of view take some getting used to, but it’s worth persevering for a bold and intelligent read.

(c) Laura Wilson, 2017