Have we reached peak twist in crime fiction? While it’s true that few things are more memorable than a good plot twist, the opposite is also the case – an abrupt left turn on the part of the writer can leave the reader feeling, at best, nonplussed, and, at worst, swindled. As with tight-rope walking, there’s a fine line between coming a cropper and getting the balance right, a feat achieved by an audacious whisker in Erin Kelly’s latest novel, He Said/She Said (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99). Eclipse chasers Kit and Laura have been together for 15 years and are expecting their longed-for first child. It should be a happy time, but a cloud has hung over them since, six months into their relationship, Laura witnessed the rape of a stranger, Beth Taylor, at a festival in Cornwall. Sure of what she saw, Laura embroidered her evidence, and the man was convicted. At first, Beth is grateful, but then events take a turn that results in the pair living in fear, under new identities. Kit and Laura share the narration, which alternates between 1999 (the rape) and 2015 (the present), ramping up the tension until what first appears as paranoia becomes a very real threat indeed.
Smart plotting, strong characters and a deft exploration of complicity and betrayal add up to a stand-out read.
Barrister Imran Mahmood’s debut novel, You Don’t Know Me (Penguin, £12.99) is an original take on a courtroom drama that puts the reader in the position of the jury. The book consists of a single closing speech by an unnamed black defendant who, charged with murder, has dismissed his lawyer with the intention of telling the whole truth, however unpalatable it may be. Some suspension of disbelief is required – the speech, which begins on Day 29 of the trial, ends nine days later – and yes, there’s one of those twists at the end. That said, the risks more than pay off for a superb piece of character-driven fiction – the ventriloquism is masterful – and a gripping, vivid depiction of London’s gang culture with an utterly authentic feel.
The idyllic North Norfolk coast, with its second homes and superyachts, is Chelsea-on-Sea – but Great Yarmouth, round the corner, is very much a poor relation. Run-down and rain-lashed, the setting for Time to Win, the first in a series by novelist Henry Sutton writing as Harry Brett (Corsair, £16.99), is relentlessly grim. Criminal property developer Rich Goodwin is in the process of trying to impress a potential US investor for his latest venture (shades of Harold Shand in the Long Good Friday) when he and his car wind up in the river: possibly suicide, but probably – given his many enemies, some of whom are uncomfortably close to home – murder. His wife, Tatiana, transforms herself from a see-no-evil gangster’s consort to a fully-fledged crime matriarch in an atmospheric and riveting tale which combines the brutality and complicated loyalties of a thoroughly dodgy business empire with the drama of a dysfunctional family.
In Crimson Lake (Arrow, £6.99), Australian author Candice Fox makes equally distinctive use of the steamy, crocodile-infested wetlands of Cairns in far north Queensland, where the narrator, traumatised former Sydney detective Ted Conkaffey, goes to ground after being accused of abducting a 13-year-old girl. The case was dropped for lack of evidence, but both his former colleagues and the general public have no doubt that he is a paedophile, and, when local vigilantes get wind of his identity, they are determined to mete out their own brand of punishment. Conkaffey finds employment with Amanda Pharrell, who, since serving a sentence for the murder of her teenage friend, has become a private eye. The pair set about investigating the disappearance of local author Jake Scully, whose quasi-religious, post-apocalyptic bestsellers have attracted more than their fair share of nutjobs. There is, of course, more to Pharrell’s conviction than meets the eye, and, as the two outcasts bond, Conkaffey decides uncover the truth… A fast-paced, expertly crafted read with a cast of colourful characters.
Hell’s Gate, by Prix Goncourt winner Laurent Gaude, translated from French by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce (Gallic, £8.99) is an altogether different proposition. When his six-year-old son Pippo is killed in the crossfire of a gangsters’ shootout on the way to school, Neapolitan taxi-driver Matteo blames himself. Consumed by rage, his wife Guiliana gives him an ultimatum – either murder their son’s killer, or bring Pippo back from the dead. Matteo tracks the man down, but cannot bring himself to pull the trigger. Instead, an encounter with a strange professor and a crazy priest gives him the opportunity to enter the underworld and reclaim the boy. Intense, powerful and thoroughly unnerving, this strange and seamless mixture of crime and mythology is a haunting exploration of guilt, revenge and the power of love.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2017