A perfect read for a winter night, The Silent Companions (Raven Books, £12.99) is a supernatural thriller from historical novelist Laura Purcell. The narrative begins in the 1860s, with Elsie Bainbridge, burnt, mute and charged with murder, confined to an asylum where progressively-minded Dr Shepherd encourages her to write down her history and, in so doing, save herself from the hangman’s noose. Recently widowed and pregnant, Elsie has retired to her late husband Rupert’s dilapidated country estate, accompanied by his impoverished cousin Sarah. The servants are resentful, the villagers are hostile, and an investigation of strange noises leads to the discovery of the 1635 diary of Rupert’s ancestor, a woman thought to be a witch, and of the eponymous ‘silent companions’. Not only do the eyes of these life-size wooden cut-out figures appear to follow Elsie around the room, but the figures themselves multiply and move around the house… Occasional anachronisms don’t spoil this intriguing, nuanced and genuinely eerie slice of Victorian Gothic.
It’s not an ancestral country pile but a three-bedroom London home that takes centre-stage in Simon Lelic’s latest novel, The House (Penguin, £7.99). Keen to get a foot on the property ladder, young couple Jack and Syd are relieved – at least initially – to have got a bargain, even if the place is creepy, smells a bit weird, and is stuffed full of the previous owner’s junk. Jack and Syd pass the narrative baton between them, and their comments on each other’s written accounts make it clear from the get-go that, despite the strange noises in the night and a gruesome discovery in the attic, we’re not in Stephen King territory. It also becomes clear that the couple aren’t being entirely honest with one another. Although Lelic doesn’t entirely deliver on this very promising set-up, The House is, nevertheless, a creepy and unnerving read.
Elly Griffith’s fourth Stephens and Mephisto mystery, The Vanishing Box (Quercus, £16.99), centres around the Brighton Hippodrome. It’s Christmas, and magician Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining, supported by an all-girl act who specialise in the sort of nearly-nude tableaux vivants that provided as much legal titillation as could be obtained in a theatre in 1953. Max’s old friend and Ruby’s fiancé DI Edgar Stephens is investigating the death of flower-seller Lily. The position in which the body is found posed, plus the fact that the dead girl lodges in the same place as two of the tableaux troupe, leads him to look more closely at their manager Vic Cutler and his possible connection to Lily’s mother – but, as with magic, all is not as it first appears. Vivid description, masterful sleight of hand and a lightness of touch add up to a terrific read for both aficionados of, and newcomers to, this delightful series.
The Man Who Died by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston, Orenda Books, £8.99) isn’t your standard Nordic Noir fare. Told in a darkly funny, deadpan style, it’s the story of 37-year-old entrepreneur Jaakko Kaunismaa who, having been told by his doctor that he has been slowly poisoned and is likely to die within weeks, returns home to find his wife, Taina, engaged in enthusiastic coitus with the company’s apprentice, Petri, on the patio. Jaakko decides to spend what remains of his time on earth trying to find out who is killing him – it could be Taina or Petri (or both), or maybe his new competitors in the wild mushroom business, who are busy trying to poach both his staff and his Japanese clients. The result is a rollercoaster read in which the farce – there are some wonderful car chase sequences, as well as deadly slapstick involving samurai swords, saunas, lost clothes and corpse disposal – has some serious and surprisingly philosophical underpinnings. Jaakko is a man who has nothing to lose by being entirely honest with himself, and his journey of self-discovery is, at times, extraordinarily poignant.
The youthful protagonist of Khurrum Rahman’s debut novel, East of Hounslow (HQ, £12.99), will also have a very short life if he isn’t careful. Small-time drug dealer Javid – known as Jay – is generally more concerned with hedonism than religion, although he does attend mosque every Friday. What he doesn’t know is that he’s on MI5’s radar. After a series of disastrous events culminate in Jay’s precious BMW, complete with his stash and the money he owes to his lethally impatient supplier, getting stolen, the security service swoop, offering protection if he will infiltrate a group of extremists. Jay becomes a reluctant jihadist, trying to demonstrate that he is receptive to indoctrination, while also attempting to work out where he fits in a society that is becoming increasingly polarised by religion. As much a coming-of-age story as a full-on action thriller, East of Hounslow is both thought-provoking and entirely gripping.
© Laura Wilson, 2017