Shortlisted for Best Crime Novel in New Zealand’s 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards, former detective Nathan Blackwell’s debut, The Sound of Her Voice (Orion, £14.99), is a police procedural with a difference. There’s no inciting incident: the narrative follows the career of Detective Matt Buchanan through the years as a colleague dies in his arms, he deals with a young rape victim and investigates drug dealers, skeletal remains found in a mangrove swamp and a child’s body discovered in the dunes. This is authentic stuff – real policing, with the grunt work far outstripping the glory – and, haunted by young Samantha Coates, who has been missing since 1999, and frustrated by the justice system, Buchanan takes a break to become a flying instructor before being drawn back to the force. It’s at this point that the action revs up to thriller speed and, while some of the credibility may be lost in the process, The Sound of Her Voice remains a convincingly raw portrait of a fundamentally decent individual whose mental health and moral compass are in danger of being destroyed by the trauma of constant exposure to the worst that humanity can offer.
Even harder to categorise is Will Carver’s latest book, Nothing Important Happened Today (Orenda Books, £8.99), which begins with nine people tying nooses around their necks and jumping to their deaths from London’s Chelsea Bridge. At once fantastical and appallingly plausible, it’s the tale of The People of Choice, a mysterious suicide cult that, thanks to social media, is spreading across the globe. Although its members have no knowledge of one another, they are ‘triggered’ by the arrival, in the post, of pre-written suicide notes. The police are baffled – there is no link between these individuals, and their leader doesn’t appear to exist… With a laconic authorial voice, plenty of interesting information about the psychology of cults, and wonderful vignettes of soon-to-be-ended lives, this mesmerically intense novel paints a thought-provoking, if depressing, picture of modern life.
The Vanished Bride (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99) is the first in a new series featuring the Bronte* sisters as ‘lady detectors’, by bestselling author Rowan Coleman, writing – with a nod to the real Emily’s nom de plume – as Bella Ellis. It’s 1845, and the peace of Haworth Parsonage is shattered when brother Branwell brings Charlotte, Emily and Anne news of the disappearance – and, due to a thoroughly blood-stained bedroom, presumed murder – of Elizabeth, second wife of Robert Chester of nearby Chester Grange. After some initial grinding of gears as the plot gets underway, things proceed smoothly into gothic territory, with hidden panels, incriminating notes, and doubts over the fate of the first Mrs Chester. While Bronte fans will undoubtedly get the most out of this – possible inspirations for Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are everywhere – you don’t need any insider knowledge to enjoy either the splendid adventure, or the touching and often funny portrayal of the sisters’ devotion to, and exasperation with, both one another and their debauched brother.
Branwell Bronte might well have benefitted from the drastic but effective Ayurvedic detoxification regime to which Abir Mukherjee’s opium-addict protagonist, Detective Sam Wyndham, subjects himself in Death in the East (Harvill Secker, £12.99). The fourth novel in this excellent series differs from the previous three in that the action is set not only in India – in this case, Assam, where Wyndham visits an ashram to undertake his cure in February 1922 – but also in the East End of London, 17 years earlier, where, as a young policeman, he investigated the murder of a woman he once loved. Sergeant Banerjee appears fairly late on in the proceedings, called to assist in solving a murder that takes place in a nearby village, and it’s fascinating to see the power balance between the two men begin to change – a reflection of the indigenous population’s growing unease with the occupying power. Death in the East is as vivid and atmospheric as its predecessors – if the Whitechapel sections are less gripping, it’s because of the Ripperesque familiarity – and, although the connection between the earlier and later killings is something of a coincidence, the extraordinary inventiveness of the two locked-room mysteries more than makes up for it.
Another author with a penchant for locked-room puzzles and a recovering-addict protagonist is Seishi Yokomizo (1902-1981). Often referred to as Japan’s answer to John Dickson Carr, and with a fair claim to being the forefather of the modern Japanese detective novel, he was hugely popular in his own country, with his private detective, the scruffy, cerebral Kosuke Kindaichi, appearing in films, TV and graphic novels, as well as 77 books.
Kindaichi’s first outing, The Honjin Murders – originally published in 1946 – has now been issued in English by Pushkin Press (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, £8.99). The plot, which revolves around a couple brutally killed on their wedding night in the winter of 1937, has plenty of Golden Age ingredients – a mysterious masked man, bloody handprints, heavy snowfall obscuring footprints and a plethora of confusing clues – and a truly ingenious solution.
*Bronte – two little dots over the ‘e’
© Laura Wilson, 2019