Award-winning British novelist Belinda Bauer is at her considerable best when writing about children, and the opening chapter of her latest book, Snap (Bantam Press, £12.99), is one of the most vividly unnerving I have ever read. It’s August 1998, and 11-year-old Jack has been left in charge of his young sisters in a hot, broken-down car in a layby on the M5 while their mother goes to call for help. When she doesn’t return, they trudge down the road to find her, to be met with only the dangling receiver of the emergency phone. When her body is found, the children’s father, unable to cope, leaves them to fend for themselves, unbeknownst to the authorities. Jack becomes proficient at burgling houses to support the family, and his habit of stealing food and taking naps in his victims’ beds leads baffled local police to refer to him as ‘Goldilocks’. Meanwhile, pregnant Catherine wakes to find a knife beside her bed with an ominous note, and DI John Marvel, his career in the doldrums and loathing his forced relocation from London to Somerset, longs for the chance to prove himself… Although Catherine’s reasons for not reporting her alarming findings to either her husband or the police don’t ring entirely true, Bauer deftly weaves these strands together for an intelligent mystery, written with razor-sharp observation and wry humour.
There’s more crime in the West Country – this time Cornwall – in Martyn Waites’s
The Old Religion (Zaffre, £12.99), which contains several nods to such folk horror classics as
The Wicker Man, although the murderous pagan rituals here are performed not to make crops grow but to bring prosperity to the fictional village of St Petroc by attracting a new marina. Former undercover policeman Tom Killgannon is in Witness Protection and fears for his life after 17-year-old Lila, on the run from a travellers’ commune after unwittingly participating in a kidnapping, breaks into his house and steals a jacket containing the documentation for his new identity. In trying to find her, Tom risks not only giving away his location to the gangs he’s hiding from, but also becoming a target for her ruthless pursuers. A strong plot, a formidable air of menace and the avoidance of hillbilly horror cliché add up to a superbly executed cautionary tale about the malevolent force of parochialism.
Steve Cavanagh’s series featuring conman-turned-lawyer Eddie Flynn has been getting stronger with each book and the latest, Thirteen (Orion, £7.99), is the best yet. Set in New York, with a terrific hook, a thoroughly likeable protagonist and more twists than a tornado, this is the story of the trial of Robert Solomon, one half of a Hollywood power couple, who appears to be bang-to-rights for the murder of his wife. The real killer, however, is not in the dock but on the jury, having offed one of the twelve in order to assume his identity. The race is on to discover the truth, and Cavanagh sets a cracking pace as he switches between Flynn’s perspective and that of the murderer for a genuine, read-in-a-sitting page turner.
The first novel by Korean bestseller You-Jeong Jeong to be translated into English, The Good Son (Little, Brown, £16.99, trans. Chi-Young Kim) begins with the 25-year-old narrator Yu-jin waking up in the family apartment covered in blood and then discovering his mother lying downstairs with her throat slit. He knows he went for a run the previous night but remembers nothing more. However, he hasn’t been taking his anti-seizure medication recently and, for some reason, his late father’s cut-throat razor is in his room… Yu-jin’s life begins to unravel as he attempts to fill the gaps in his memory while hiding his mother’s death from his increasingly perplexed stepbrother and aunt and starts to discover things about himself that his mother had tried to keep hidden. Jeong expertly inches up the tension in this crafty, creepy story of a psychopath’s coming-of-age.
Our Kind of Cruelty (Century, £12.99) by Araminta Hall offers a different, but equally compelling, take on male derangement, reminiscent of the late Ruth Rendell’s wonderful psychological thriller Going Wrong. During their intense eight-year love affair, Mike and Verity played a sex game called ‘the Crave’ which involved Mike ‘rescuing’ Verity from the attentions of other men. At Verity’s urging, Mike took a job in America and, by the time he returned, the relationship had cooled. It soon becomes clear that Mike, who is busily furnishing a house for himself and Verity to live in, is refusing to believe that she has moved on, even interpreting an invitation to her wedding as a challenging new twist in their old game. The extent to which Verity is manipulating Mike is never entirely clear, but this is both a disturbing tale of obsession and a sobering reminder of how society persists in judging women for being highly sexed.
An addition to the increasingly popular sub-genre of ‘house thriller’, The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet (Doubleday, £12.99) certainly has an intriguing premise: gaslighting by house exchange when an unhappily married couple leave their Leeds home for a week’s stay in London, and the wife has a creeping sense that a past love-affair may be coming back to haunt her. Although there are some genuinely eerie moments, thin characterisation and an over-reliance on coincidence mean that this potential remains unfulfilled.
© Laura Wilson, 2018