It’s been a while since Minette Walters published any full-length fiction, but her legions of admirers will surely be rubbing their hands at the arrival of her latest book, and they won’t be disappointed. Published by the Random House Group’s horror imprint, Hammer (£12.99), The Cellar is a crime/horror hybrid, and, despite a slightly ambiguous ending, it’s clear that the Devil as portrayed here is a psychological demon produced by a toxic combination of superstition, abuse and fear. Many of Walters’s books tackle big issues, and this one’s about domestic slavery. What’s happened to young Muna is certainly horrific: FGM, followed by importation from Africa as a chattel of the Songoli family, being made to sleep in the eponymous cellar, forbidden to go outside, beaten and sexually abused. Muna is much cleverer, and also far more damaged, than her tormentors suppose, and she’s picked up enough English to understand what’s going on when the police come to the house to investigate the disappearance of ten-year-old Abiola Songoli. Slowly, ingeniously – and, it has to be said, pretty gruesomely – she uses her knowledge of their weaknesses to turn the tables on the boy’s father, mother and brother. The cover price is a bit cheeky for a novella, but this compact, well-told and extraordinarily atmospheric story packs more of a punch than a lot of stuff with twice the wordage.
Removing a well-loved fictional policeman from his or her natural habitat can be a risky business, especially when the copper in question is on leave and has no authority to investigate anything. Time of Death, Mark Billingham’s thirteenth Tom Thorne thriller (Little, Brown £18.99), finds the DI once again uprooted from London, this time to the small Warwickshire town of Polesford where his partner, DS Helen Weeks, grew up, and where Stephen Bates, the husband of one of her old friends, has just been arrested for abducting two school girls. The local DI is convinced that Bates is the right man, and the town think so too, with the result that Linda Bates and her two children, who have been moved for their own protection, are virtual prisoners. Billingham handles the ‘no mandate’ problem adroitly, and even contrives to bring Thorne’s colleague, pathologist Phil Hendricks, to the scene for some ingenious forensic fancy footwork. What’s most impressive about this novel, however, is the astute observation of the beleaguered Bates family, who turn in on themselves as the inhabitants of the town turn on them.
The Truth and Other Lies, the debut novel from German scriptwriter Sascha Arango (translated by Imogen Taylor, Simon & Schuster £14.99), is the story of bestselling author and loving husband Henry Hayden, whose life is just as much of a fiction as the novels he supposedly writes. The real author is his wife, Martha, a one-woman fiction factory who prefers to remain anonymous; he is having an affair with ‘his’ editor, Betty, who has just announced that she is expecting their child, and the manner in which his parents met their deaths doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. Betty’s revelation that she is pregnant threatens to bring the whole edifice tumbling down around Henry’s ears and the drastic action he takes to resolve the situation only makes things worse… Set in a ‘nondescript coastal town’, the novel feels oddly unanchored, and Henry and Martha are a conveniently low-tech couple, but comparisons with Patricia Highsmith are not unfounded – the book fairly twangs with paranoia, sardonic humour and razor-sharp observation.
The Cunning House by Richard Marggraf Turley (Sandstone Press, £8.99) is firmly located in both space and time: a male brothel in London, 1810. Not only do the ‘mollies’ run the risk of capital punishment if they are caught, but the city is in a moral panic fomented by political suspicion and religious fervour. Lawyer Christopher Wyre finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue which encompasses taverns, asylums, the Bow Street Runners and St. James’s Palace, where the Duke of Cumberland, fifth son of George III, has been attacked. Well-researched and meticulously detailed, using the rich and pungently biological language of the time, The Cunning House is the best kind of historical mystery – informative and utterly fascinating at the same time.
Another novel which makes excellent use of London locations and historical detail is Robin Hood Yard (Harper £8.99), the third book from Mark Sanderson to feature journalist John Steadman and detective Matt Turner. Set in 1938, against a backdrop of escalating violence in Nazi Germany and a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Britain, this tightly-plotted tale of shifting personal and political allegiances moves at a brisk pace as Steadman and Turner try to figure out, at considerable risk to themselves, the connection between two particularly grisly murders.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2015