Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that crime fiction is a broad church, which is, in terms of the continuing evolution and vibrancy of the genre, a thoroughly good thing. However, the understandable requirement for market positioning can sometimes lead to books being labelled as crime fiction when they have only a tangential connection with what this label is, even in a very general way, supposed to represent, thus giving rise to a set of expectations that are doomed to remain unfulfilled. Parade, the first novel by Shuichi Yoshida, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is one such. Four dysfunctional twenty-somethings share a Tokyo flat. The girls are Kotomi, who watches television and waits endlessly for her boyfriend, a popular actor, to call, and Mirai, who gets drunk every night in gay bars. The boys are Ryosuke, who is obsessed with his friend’s girlfriend, and film buff Naoki. Each takes his or her turn as narrator, together with homeless rent boy Satoru, who, brought back one night by Mirai, takes up residence. Something
very strange is happening in the flat next door, while, out in the streets, women are being attacked, seemingly at random. So far, so creepy, but unfortunately, not enough else happens. It’s a sharply observed slice of urban alienation, but, unlike Yoshida’s wonderful Villain (written later, but published in the UK in 2010), Parade simply doesn’t have enough of the right kind of narrative welly to develop into a crime novel.
Subverting the genre is, of course, quite another matter. Babayaga by Toby Barlow (Corvus, £12.99), does that all right, with splatter-gun plotting set in Cold War Paris and featuring Will, an adman, whose best friend and fellow American, literary journalist Oliver, turns out to be an agent for the CIA, and Zoya, a beautiful and eternally youthful witch who has just murdered her lover. Elga, Zoya’s elderly mentor, keeps the police off both their backs, figuratively if not literally, by turning them into fleas. Oh, and there are strung-out jazzmen, weaponised hallucinogenic drugs, caches of hidden rifles, and hefty dollops of Russian folklore, and the whole thing – once you relax into it – is weirdly riveting.
Very much dependent on the sharp observations and wry humour of the central character, No Regrets, Coyote by John Dufresne (Serpent’s Tail, £10.00) might not be to everyone’s taste, either, because, as professional therapist, volunteer forensic consultant and resident of South Florida Wylie ‘Coyote’ Melville himself states, ‘a lack of narrative structure, as you know, can cause anxiety’. However, despite the author’s tendency to go haring off in all directions like an overenthusiastic puppy on its first walk – Coyote’s father’s Alzheimer’s, his new kitten Django, his therapy sessions, the magician friend who can slice a banana in half with a frisbeed playing card and the homeless man who has taken up residence on his front lawn – this wonderful, off-beat novel, in which our hero is called to a Christmas Eve massacre at a family home where the father has apparently shot his wife and children before turning the gun on himself, is bold, funny, and extremely enjoyable.
Those whose taste is for something more conventional will find themselves on safe ground with Sarah Hilary’s first novel Someone Else’s Skin (Headline, £13.99). A London-based police procedural featuring an investigator, DI Marnie Rome, who carries the requisite emotional baggage – in her case, the murder of her parents by her foster-brother – and a sidekick with impeccable outsider credentials, it begins when, on a visit to interview a potential witness at a women’s shelter, the pair find one of the inmates’ husbands lying stabbed on the floor. With a well-managed drip-feed of information and a genuinely intriguing plot that revolves around various types of domestic violence, Someone Else’s Skin is, despite a tendency to trip over its own feet in some of the descriptive passages, an intelligent, assured and very promising debut.
Irene is the debut novel from Pierre Lemaitre, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (MacLehose, £16.99). It’s the prequel to Alex, which was published in the UK last year and won the Crime Writer’s Association International Dagger, and the first outing of the small but perfectly formed Commandant Camille Verhoeven, who, when the novel opens, is happily married and expecting his first child with wife Irene. Investigating a series of particularly savage murders, Verhoeven is confronted with crime scenes that are literal recreations of passages from James Ellory, Bret Easton Ellis, John D. MacDonald, and the like. When he engages with the killer through a series of advertisements, things start to get personal… Contrived, yes, but thrilling enough to make up for that, and – although the title is something of a giveaway that all may not end well for our diminutive hero – a page-turning race to a grand-slam finish.
© Laura Wilson, 2014