There is always money to be made out of debt, and the eponymous setting of Antonia Hodgson’s splendid debut, The Devil in the Marshalsea (Hodder & Stoughton, £17.99), is an example of one of the most appalling and insidious ways of going about it. In 1727, seven years after the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, twenty-five-year-old Tom Hawkins, the ne’er-do-well son of a clergyman, finds himself imprisoned alongside hundreds of others. Conditions are relatively comfortable – just as long as Tom can find a way to keep paying the gaolers who are intent on squeezing every last penny out of their captives. Once the money runs out, he will be consigned to the fetid and teeming ‘Common Side’ until such time as starvation or disease finish him off… However, a man has been murdered in the prison a few months before his arrival, and Tom is offered his freedom if he can unmask the killer. Impeccably researched and astonishingly atmospheric, with time past evoked so strongly that one can almost smell it, this is a truly spellbinding tale.
New to me, I’m ashamed to say, is French author Pascal Garnier (1949-2010). The latest of his works to be published in English is The Front Seat Passenger (Gallic, £7.99, translation by Jane Aitken), a small but perfectly formed piece of darkest noir fiction told in spare, mordant prose. Fabian’s marriage is a stagnant one, and the death of his wife Sylvie in a car accident leaves him numb, his emotional detachment exacerbated by his discovery of her infidelity – her lover died with her. For reasons that he cannot entirely explain, Fabian begins stalking Sylvie’s lover’s widow, Martine, and discovers that there is more to her relationship with Madeleine, from whom she appears to be inseparable, than meets the eye. Recounted with disconcerting matter-of-factness, this marvellously unpredictable story is surreal and horrific in equal measure.
Discovering two terrific new authors goes at least some small way to make up for the fact that Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (William Heinemann, £18.99) is the last case for Charlie Resnick. Living in retirement in Nottinghamshire, the former inspector is spending his days listening to his beloved jazz and watching John Wayne movies in the afternoons when he is offered a post as a civilian investigator. When a skeleton turned up by bulldozers in a now-defunct colliery village turns out to be that of a woman who disappeared thirty years ago, during the Miners’ Strike, he is called upon to help. Resnick has bittersweet memories of the time – involved in intelligence-gathering, he remains deeply ambivalent about some of the tactics used against the miners. A vivid portrayal of a community riven by anger, guilt and betrayal, as well as a riveting mystery, this expertly-rendered time-slip is a fitting swan song for a wonderful detective.
Author of a string of best-selling novels including Man and Boy and Man and Wife, Tony Parsons has now turned his hand to crime, with The Murder Bag (Century, £9.99). A group of former public schoolboys, alumni of the ominously-named Potter’s Field, are being offed one by one, and Detective Max Wolfe, recently arrived at the Homicide Division of London’s West End Central, is tasked with investigating. It zips along nicely, and there are a couple of nifty twists but, for the most part, the dots aren’t hard to join and there’s a generic, off-the-peg feel to both the main character and the plot, with a sense of the author trying to second-guess elements that will prove popular – hence, I can only assume, the inclusion for no very good reason of the Black Museum of Scotland Yard and the ‘From Hell’ letter supposedly written by Jack the Ripper.
There have been some welcome re-issues recently, including the first in the quartet of crime novels by Julian Barnes writing under the name Dan Kavanagh. Originally published in 1980, Duffy (Orion, £12.99), which introduces his eponymous copper-turned-P.I., was very unusual for its time in having a protagonist who wasn’t entirely heterosexual. Funny, sleazy, fast-paced and written with brio, the plot has Duffy’s search for a blackmailer leading him into the seedier reaches of London’s Soho. Something of a period piece – the pornscape has changed rather a lot in the years since first publication and you may find yourself pulled up short (as it were), by all the references to pubic hair – but none the worse for that.
Equally enjoyable is Speedy Death (Vintage, £8.99) by Gladys Mitchell, a favourite from the Golden Age of crime writing long who has, for too long, been overshadowed by Christie and Sayers. Originally published in 1929, Speedy Death is the first of over sixty eccentric (and sometimes downright potty) novels featuring her psychiatrist sleuth, the outspoken and monstrously saurian Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Adored by Philip Larkin (‘the great Gladys’), Mitchell’s work is exciting and exasperating by turns, but never, ever dull.
© Laura Wilson, 2014