Winner of both the Grand Prix de La Litterature* Policiere** and the European Crime Fiction prize, The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre (Old Street Publishing, £8.99, translated by Stephanie Smee) is Breaking Bad meets Weeds, with a French suburban twist. Fifty-three-year-old widowed mother of two Patience Portefeux faces a precarious future thanks to a job with no pension – the French state likes to pay its court interpreters ‘off the books’ – and a mother with dementia in an expensive care home. Years of translating police wiretaps on North African drug gangs have given her an inside track on the trade in Moroccan hashish, so, when she gets the chance to take possession of a consignment of le bon shit, she puts her fluency in Arabic to criminal use. Acerbic and witty, casting a sharp eye on both failing social systems and the fruitless ‘war on drugs’, Patience is one of the standout characters in this year’s crime fiction crop, and you’ll be rooting for her all the way.
Another outstanding creation is Justine Lee, narrator of The Choke by Sofie Laguna (Gallic, £8.99). In the early seventies, in a fictional town on Australia’s Murray River, the ten-year-old, whose mother abandoned the family years before, lives in a world of men: two older brothers; Ray, her violent criminal father, who visits periodically; and alcoholic grandfather and PTSD sufferer Pop, who attempts to provide stability. Daily life is full of threats, from innuendo to downright menace, and, unable to read due to undiagnosed dyslexia, Justine has nothing and no-one to turn to for information or emotional support. Her brief glimpse of a less brutal life is snatched away when her only school friend moves to Sydney, and there is a horrible, slow-motion-car-crash inevitability about what happens to her three years later… Raw and powerful, The Choke is not an easy read, but Justine’s resilience and strength of character make for an ending that is both redemptive and moving.
Set in a small, depressed town on the Lancashire coast, A.S. Hatch’s debut This Little Dark Place (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99) centres on carpenter Daniel, whose wife Victoria turns away from him after the miscarriage of a longed-for pregnancy. Increasingly isolated after his mother’s death, he starts exchanging letters with prisoner Ruby, who has been convicted of assaulting her abusive ex-partner. Soon, they begin to confide in each other, and when Victoria finally leaves and Daniel retreats to the remote cottage in the wood left him by his mother, Ruby, now released, comes to find him… As with all epistolary novels – Daniel is writing to someone called Lucy from an undisclosed location, some years after the events took place – suspension of belief is required, and, while the recipient’s identity is not hard to guess, this elegantly creepy skin-crawler is well worth the read.
The Long Call (Macmillan, £16.99) is the first book in the Two Rivers series from the bestselling author of the Vera and Shetland series, Ann Cleeves. Set in North Devon – the two rivers in question are the Taw and the Torridge – it features Detective Inspector Matthew Venn. On the day of his father’s funeral, Venn, shunned by the strict evangelical community in which he grew up for renouncing his beliefs and placed even further beyond the pale by his sexual orientation, is holding his own vigil outside the Crematorium when he is called to investigate a corpse discovered on a nearby beach. The only pointer to the man’s identity is an envelope that links him to the Woodyard Centre, a local day care and drop-in space run by Venn’s husband Jonathan. The case gets even more uncomfortably close to home when his mother calls him about the disappearance of a friend’s daughter because the girl, who has a learning disability, also attended the centre… Fans of Jimmy Perez and Vera need not worry: a traditional mystery of the best sort, with a likeable protagonist and a strong female sidekick, get this new exciting venture off to a flying start.
A bestseller in his native Finland, Antti Tuomainen has been dubbed – with some justification – the King of Helsinki Noir. His latest offering, Little Siberia (translated by David Hackston, Orenda Books, £8.99) starts with a famous former rally driver, who has a bad habit of getting behind the wheel when pissed, skirting the small town of Hurmevaara at 240kph when a meteorite crashes into his car. It’s a valuable object, and the citizens decide to keep it under guard at the town’s museum until it can be removed for analysis, but someone is intent on stealing it, and local pastor and military veteran Joel Huhta is determined to find out who – is it one of the custodians, or the rally driver himself, or Russians from across the nearby border? As if that weren’t enough, Joel has another mystery on his hands: his wife announces that she is pregnant, but wounds sustained in Afghanistan have made him infertile – a fact he hasn’t yet shared with her – so who is the father? With moral dilemmas, plenty of action, and the author’s trademark mixture of humour and melancholy, this is Tuomainen’s best yet.
© Laura Wilson, 2019
*Acute accent on first ‘e’
**Grave accent on first ‘e’