This Is What Happened (John Murray, £12.99) is an ingenious standalone psychological thriller from Mick Herron, award-winning writer of the superb Slough House spy series. Recently arrived in London, naïve postroom worker Maggie Barnes is adrift and lonely. When she is enlisted by enigmatic Harvey to work for MI5, she seizes the chance to be part of something important, but things quickly start to unravel when she is caught sneaking about her London office at night, attempting to upload spyware on the company’s computer network. Mind games and Herron’s distinctive dark humour abound, and the fact that readers will spot that Harvey isn’t all that he appears to be long before Maggie does serves to rachet up the tension for a compelling and claustrophobically intense three-hander, told with admirable economy.
The Blood Road (HarperCollins, £16.99) is the eleventh novel in bestselling author Stuart MacBride’s series featuring long-suffering Aberdeenshire policeman Logan McRae. Now working in Professional Standards and policing his fellow officers – including the wonderfully scabrous Roberta Steele – he becomes embroiled in the case of DI Bell who is thought to have been dead and buried for two years when turns up as a corpse in a crashed car. Meanwhile, young children are being abducted, and there are rumours that the twice-dead officer might have been involved in a clandestine ‘Livestock Mart’ that caters to well-heeled paedophiles… Squeamish readers should probably look elsewhere, but for everyone else, MacBride offers a tour-de-force, expertly balancing wisecracks with moments of genuine fist-in-mouth horror for a smartly-paced and vividly pungent police procedural.
Set in Glasgow in 1969, Liam McIlvanney’s latest book, The Quaker (HarperCollins, £12.99), is loosely based on the murders of the real – and never caught – serial killer ‘Bible John’, who is believed to have raped and strangled three women after meeting them in the city’s Barrowland Ballroom. DI Duncan McCormack is drafted in from the Flying Squad to review Glasgow CID’s failing investigation, much to the irritation of the incumbents who have already attracted scorn from the media for their futile attempts to solve the case by mingling with the punters at the dance hall. A parallel narrative, concerning expert safe-cracker Alex Paton who travels home from London to take part in an auction house heist, is skilfully dovetailed in as the plot thickens and McCormack gets drawn deeper into both cases. Despite some anachronisms, this is an atmospheric portrait of a dreich and seedy place in the throes of slum clearance as well as a solidly-crafted and satisfying detective story.
Also based on a true story, which took place in London three centuries earlier, is E.C. Fremantle’s The Poison Bed (Michael Joseph, £12.99). The arrest of power-couple Robert and Frances Carr for the murder by poisoning of courtier Sir Thomas Overbury set tongues wagging in 1615, not least because Carr was a favourite of King James I and Frances was a scion of the aristocratic Howard family. Fremantle uses many of the known facts as the bedrock for a story of intrigue and ambition in which rival factions jockey, sometimes fatally, to cement their power bases at court. A place in the king’s bed means that the handsome but essentially gormless Carr is promoted beyond his abilities and relies on the far cleverer Overbury for guidance until the pair fall out over whether or not he should wed Frances, whose family, desiring advancement, are seeking the annulment of her existing marriage in order to free her up for this more advantageous union. When Overbury refuses the position of ambassador to the court of Russia, an irate King James consigns him to the Tower of London, where he falls ill and dies in mysterious circumstances. As Robert and Frances pass the narrative baton between them it starts to become clear that Frances may not be the helpless pawn that she first appears… Although the characterisation of the two protagonists would have benefitted from more subtlety, this is nevertheless a rich and fascinating tale, all the more welcome for being set in a period that tends to be neglected by writers of historical crime.
Last but by no means least, there’s some light relief in the form of A Shot in the Dark (Raven Books, £12.99), the first book in Lynne Truss’s projected series based on her delightful radio comedies set in 1950s Brighton. Inspector Steine is convinced that, since the Middle Street Massacre of 1951, during which the town’s criminals wiped each other out while the police stopped off for ice cream, his patch has been – despite the presence of a cast of small-timers such as Stanley-knife Stanley and Ronnie the Nerk, as well as a mysterious redhead with links to a string of burglaries – clean as a whistle. His airy dismissal of vital clues is the bane of both jaded Sergeant Brunswick and ambitious newcomer Constable Twitten, who have their work cut out when a theatre critic with plenty of enemies is shot dead halfway through the opening night of a new play. With plenty of brightly coloured bucket-and-spadery including ghost trains, Punch & Judy and variety acts, this clever, tongue-in-cheek escapade is a perfect summer read.
© Laura Wilson, 2018