Newcomer, by Japanese bestseller Keigo Higashino (translated by Giles Murray, Little Brown, £13.99), is an intriguing mash-up of police procedural and Golden Age puzzle mystery. When 45-year-old divorcee Mineko Mitsui is found strangled at home, Detective Kyoichiro Kaga, first introduced to anglophone readers in Malice (2014) and here newly demoted to local policing in the Nihonbashi Precinct, begins tracing items found in the dead woman’s flat to shops in the neighbourhood, using a mixture of Sherlockian deduction and legwork to lead him to the killer. What initially appears to be a chain of short stories coalesces into an investigation, as Kaga, in a delightfully low-key style, painstakingly builds up a picture of the dead woman’s past and the events of the last few days of her life.
Still Lives, by Maria Hummel (Quercus, £14.99) is an altogether more sensational take on female homicide – deliberately so, because it centres around an exhibition, at the Los Angeles’s Rocque Museum, of provocative artist Kim Lord’s depictions of herself in the guise of famous female murder victims. The paintings are intended as an indictment of the way society fetishizes the violent deaths of beautiful women, but museum staffer Maggie Richter has mixed feelings, both about the show – ‘I hate the abject powerlessness it projects. I hate it because it reminds me there is an end for women worse than death’ – and about its creator, who is now living with her ex-partner, Greg. When Lord fails to turn up for her opening gala, Greg becomes the primary suspect in her disappearance, and it falls to Maggie to discover the truth. Not only a satisfying mystery, but also an ambitious, intelligent and often uncomfortable study of gender, violence, and art.
The Stranger Diaries (Quercus, £12.99), the first standalone novel from Elly Griffiths, author of the Dr Ruth Galloway Series, uses the framing device of a spooky short story by the fictional Victorian writer RM Holland to create a multi-layered and splendidly creepy Gothic tale. Teacher Clare Cassidy works at Talgarth School, Holland’s former home, and is writing Holland’s biography, but her plans are interrupted when a colleague is found murdered, and mysterious notes start to appear in her journal. Cliffhangers and Gothic tropes abound as the narrative baton is passed between Clare, her daughter Georgia and DS (and former Talgarth pupil) Harbinder Kaur, with Griffiths expertly ratcheting up the tension to make this the perfect read for a long winter evening.
There’s more genre-blending to be had from W.C. Ryan (author, as William Ryan, of the excellent Captain Korolev series). Set in the closing months of 1917, A House of Ghosts (Zaffre, £12.99) is a fusion of old-school ‘big house’ mystery, romantic suspense and spine-tingler, which takes place on an island off the Devon Coast at the spectacularly haunted Blackwater Abbey. Arms manufacturer Lord Highmount has arranged a séance for the purpose of contacting his sons Algernon and Reginald, both missing in action and presumed dead. The guests include mediums, a shell-shocked soldier, Reginald’s former fiancée Kate Cartwright, who is also an intelligence operative tasked with identifying a spy who has infiltrated the munitions company, and another agent, Captain Donovan, who is posing as a manservant. As the island is cut off from the mainland by a storm, there’s plenty of conventionally spooky fun to be had – secret passages, apparitions and the like – but what gives this book real atmosphere isn’t so much the jump scares as the well-rendered pathos of a country struggling to come to terms with the loss of a generation.
The weather also proves a challenge, as well as a metaphor, in Five Days of Fog by Anna Freeman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99), which is set during the Great Smog of 1952. Young Florrie Palmer is heir apparent to mother Ruby, the TB-racked leader of the Cutters, a gang of female criminals who specialise in robbery, sometimes with violence, and who are irrevocably entwined with their male counterparts, the Godden Boys. She dreams of going straight, but it’s hard to escape, especially when boyfriend Ted is coerced into a ‘partnership’ with Harry Godden’s right-hand man. Tarred as much by their involvement – ‘the queer mixture of excitement and shame, of power and powerlessness’ – as by the particles of soot that surround them, Florrie and Ted attempt to make moral choices, but are thwarted at every turn. With a tough, likeable protagonist, this is a fascinating and very readable slice of social history, as well as an evocative portrait of a clannish and dangerous world.
Grandmother of British domestic noir Celia Fremlin (1914-2009) deserves to be far better known than she currently is, and a must for any crime-fiction lover’s Christmas Wish List is The Long Shadow (£8.99), the latest of her books to be re-issued by Faber & Faber. Not only is Imogen struggling to cope with the social discomfiture of being the recent widow of a self-regarding control freak, she also has a houseful of unwanted guests to look after during the festive season – and then she starts getting phone calls from a man who claims that she killed her husband… Perceptive, funny and genuinely chilling.
© Laura Wilson, 2018