Darktown, by Thomas Mullen (Little, Brown, £16.99) is set in Atlanta, Georgia, which, in 1948, was a place where black lives didn’t matter – at least, not to the white authorities. They have, however, just hired their first black officers. Tasked with policing the ‘coloured’ neighbourhoods, the eight men find themselves in the impossible position of upholding the law whilst still being, in the segregated ‘Jim Crow’ South of America, second-class citizens. Issued with guns and badges, they have no squad car and are forbidden to arrest white suspects, they face constant taunts and racial abuse as well as suspicion from their own community and, denied access to the police stations, they are forced to operate out of a dingy basement. When a black woman, last seen in a car with a drunken white man, is murdered, the powers-that-be are indifferent, and it is left to officers Boggs and Smith, with help from sympathetic white policeman Rakestraw, to try and find the culprit. Fascinating, grim and unsettling, this is a story of violent and ingrained racism, political corruption, conspiracy and almost unbearable psychological pressure.
Tall Oaks (twenty7, £7.99), the first novel from Chris Whitaker, set in a fictitious American small town in California, is a pleasingly unusual mixture of psychological thriller and screwball comedy from a young writer who is clearly not afraid to take risks. When three-year-old Harry goes missing, everyone wants to help, but when he doesn’t turn up, mother Jess finds herself in a destructive spiral of booze and promiscuity, despite support from the local chief of police and the community. The supporting cast, which includes Manny, the podgy, potty-mouthed teenager who wants to be a gangster, who swelters in his woollen three-piece suit and too-tight fedora as he tries to extort money from local shopkeepers, and Jerry, the mountainous, slow-witted manager of a local photo store, are an absolute delight. That this highly original mash-up doesn’t entirely come off is, I think, mainly due to Whitaker’s lack of writing experience – subtler characterisation is required for the denouement to be entirely convincing – but the combination of verve, humour and pathos make it well worth the read.
The Child Garden (Constable, £7.99) is a contemporary standalone novel from Catriona McPherson, author of the Dandy Gilver series. The life of bookish council registrar Gloria Harkness revolves around work and visiting the care home to read to her comatose 15-year-old son, who suffers from a neurodegenerative condition, and to chat to her elderly landlady. Thirty years earlier, the care home housed a school of the progressive, hippy-dippy variety called Eden, which was closed after one of its pupils drowned in mysterious circumstances. The re-appearance of a former Eden pupil, Gloria’s old friend Stephen, and the discovery of the corpse of another ex-student in the now-overgrown grounds leads to a police investigation in which Stephen soon becomes the primary suspect. Gloria, making her own enquiries, discovers that that a number of those present on the night of the original tragedy have either killed themselves or had remarkably bad luck in life… Set in rural Scotland, The Child Garden is both utterly intriguing and disturbingly eerie.
Told from multiple points of view, The Silence Between Breaths by Cath Staincliffe (Constable, £19.99) is a tale of strangers on a train – in this case, the 10.35am from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston. The hopes, fears and concerns of the passengers are various: a job interview, a holiday, difficulties at work, stroppy children, a parent with dementia… And in the middle of all of them sits Saheel, a man on a mission, armed with a lethal rucksack. The story begins with the mundane and ends with the horrific. It’s fairly clear what’s going to happen from the off, but Staincliffe is a sensitive and humane writer whose talent for characterisation is such that our investment in Naz, Holly, Jeff and the rest of the potentially doomed travellers is the fuel for real suspense.
Undertow, a psychological thriller with a nod to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, is the debut novel from Elizabeth Heathcote (Quercus, £12.99). Journalist Carmen, second wife to lawyer Tom and stepmother to his three children, feels uncomfortable around first wife Laura, even though she was not the cause of the break up and Laura is unfailingly polite. However, this is as nothing compared to Carmen’s discomfiture over Zena, the glamorous woman for whom Tom left Laura, who subsequently drowned off the Nofolk coast, near the holiday home he still maintains in order to have a base close to his children. When chance remarks lead Carmen to suspect that Zena’s death was not, after all, an accident, she starts to investigate, and begins to worry that Tom might have been responsible. A strong sense of place, some deft plotting and moments of genuine surprise make up for lack of emotional depth and some rather summarized scenes.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2016