A Maasai detective, a lost New Yorker and a stuffed toy all feature in the month’s best crime titles, says Laura Wilson
The 2007 Kenyan general election, during which protests over vote-rigging escalated into ethnic violence resulting in the deaths of around a thousand people, is the backdrop to journalist Richard Crompton’s Nairobi-based novel The Honey Guide (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £12.99), featuring Maasai policeman Mollel.
This outstanding debut has all the hallmarks of an efficient police procedural – the initial investigation is of a murdered and mutilated prostitute – but it’s also a vivid and sensitive depiction of an alarmingly volatile situation, riven with tribal divisions, in a place where glittering towerblocks and shopping malls sit cheek-by-jowl with tin shacks. This, however, is more than mere local colour, with traditions, beliefs and conflicts being properly defining factors in the characterisation of a strong cast, from the vulnerable but dogged Mollel and his partner Kiunga to an evangelical power-couple (‘Calling George Nalo ministries a church is a bit like calling the Maasai Mara a petting zoo’) and Superglue Sammy the blind vagrant. The good news is that The Honey Guide is the first in a projected series – more, please.
There’s more tribalism and corruption in high places in Black Irish, the debut novel from New Times best-selling non-fiction author Stephan Talty (Headline, £19.99), this time in the less exotic but equally well-rendered setting of Buffalo, NY. Like other cities in the American rust belt, Buffalo suffers from a beleaguered economy, a crumbling infrastructure and a steadily dwindling population, and it’s also the home to a clannish community of Irish-Americans who exist in a permanent state of truculent paranoia, clinging to the revolutionary dream of the Old Country. Police officer Abbie Kearny, adopted by an Irish-American father but deemed an outsider because of her mysterious origins, is investigating the death of Jimmy Ryan, whose corpse has been found in a local church. He’s been tortured, and a toy monkey has been stuffed inside his mouth – an indication, for those familiar with the genre, of a serial killer with a motif as well as an agenda. The setting, the atmosphere, and the character of Kearny – prickly and keen to prove herself – as well as a nice twist at the end, add up to a compelling read.
Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Jewish widower, uprooted by his granddaughter and her husband from New York to Oslo, is the marvellously cantankerous hero of Derek B. Miller’s first novel, Norwegian By Night (Faber and Faber, £12.99). A veteran of the Korean war, troubled by the past and frequently conversing with ghosts, Horowitz puts his memories of military training to good use when a neighbour is murdered and, rescuing her six-year-old son from the killer’s clutches, he goes on the run with the boy. Norwegian By Night has all the ingredients of a top-notch thriller, but it’s the superb characterisation of the protagonist that fuels true suspense. Funny and moving as well as thoroughly gripping, this is crime fiction of the highest order.
Another accomplished debut, this time set in Wales, is The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams (Macmillan, £16.99). Shrinks in literature and film have an unfortunate habit of becoming overly involved with their clients, and psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew is no exception. Beset by trouble at home in the form of an errant husband and a daughter whose behaviour is increasingly challenging, she finds herself drawn to a handsome young actor. Gwydion, who is the son of famous theatre director Evan Morgan, has revealed an unusual phobia, and Mayhew is determined to discover the reason for the symptoms, which, she suspects, may well be linked to his witnessing, as a child, the death by drowning of his au pair. Williams, who is training to be a psychotherapist, doesn’t flinch from depicting the dodgier aspects of the profession as Mayhew becomes increasingly involved with the Morgan family, and her attempts to uncover the truth make for a pacey, intriguing psychological thriller.
Salvation of a Saint (Little, Brown, £12.99) by best-selling Japanese author Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander is less a whodunit, more a how-the-hell-did-she-do-it. As with Higashino’s earlier novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, the plot revolves around the unravelling of an apparently watertight alibi by Tokyo detective Kusangi and his sometime consultant, physicist Yukawa. This time, it’s the mysterious poisoning of businessman Yoshitaka Mashiba by Ayane, the wife he was about to divorce and whose claim to have been miles away at the time of his death is irrefutable. The solution is ingenious, bordering on preposterous, and Higashino’s skill clearly lies in contrivance rather than characterisation, but the process of deduction, sometimes piling Pelion on Ossa as Kusangi, Yukawa and junior detective Utsumi are either at odds or cross-purposes, is fascinating.