Reviews, April 2015

Documentary-maker Catherine Ravenscroft is successful, happily married to Robert, and, despite the fact that their son, Nicholas, is something of an underachiever, things are going pretty well – until they move into their new home and Catherine spots a mysterious self-published book on her bedside table. Opening it, she is horrified to find that she is reading about herself, with details of an incident that she has kept secret for twenty years. This is the intriguing premise of Disclaimer (Doubleday, £12.99), the assured debut novel from scriptwriter Renee Knight. The roman a clef within the book is The Perfect Stranger, and it tells the story of a young man who had an affair with Catherine while on holiday in Spain, and drowned saving the life of the then five-year-old Nicholas. The book ends with Catherine’s imagined death, and it is clear that its pseudonymous author is bent on revenge. As their lives become increasingly entangled, Catherine’s world begins to fall apart, as does that of her tormentor, in this strong and compelling portrait of two individuals who are forced to confront unpalatable, even unbearable, truths.

What She Left, the first novel of journalist T.R. Richmond (Michael Joseph, £12.99) contains not another book but, tantalisingly, an entire series of paper and electronic trails – letters, e-mails, diary entries, tweets, playlists, throwaway comments on student forums – inviting the reader to play detective and piece together what happened to popular but neurotic 25-year-old journalist Alice Salmon in her final hours: a drunken accident, suicide, or murder? Anthropologist Professor Jeremy Cooke attempts to recreate the young woman’s life but he has his own secrets, and so, too, do many of the other people in her circle. The collage of recovered scraps with its back-and-forth chronology can be hard to follow at times, and the denouement seems to come a little out of the blue, but What She Left is an extraordinary and bold creation: life and death in all its messiness, replete with contradictions, misunderstandings, confusion and an awful lot of booze.

Debut novelist Ben McPherson takes a more conventional approach in A Line of Blood (HarperCollins, £12.99), an impressive slice of domestic suspense set in the less salubrious end of London’s Finsbury Park, where Alex Mercer and his young son find the man next door dead in his bath. Eleven-year-old Max seems unaffected by the sight of the apparent suicide, but when Alex discovers that his wife Millicent knew the neighbour quite a lot better than he’d originally thought, the fault lines in their marriage begin to open. McPherson is a dab hand at creating realistically flawed characters to whom one just about manages to give the benefit of the doubt, and the ending, although visible from some way off, is still a genuine shocker.

The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler (Doubleday, £16.99) is the twelfth novel to feature the fabulously un-generic and unorthodox detectives Arthur Bryant and John May and their colleagues at London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. With the City in chaos as anti-capitalist protesters, enraged by the latest banking scandal, don Guy Fawkes masks and take to the streets, the octogenarian pair find themselves pitted against a killer who is taking advantage of the mayhem to dispatch his victims in a variety of ingenious ways, all fire-related. Fowler, an unashamed anorak, takes delight in stuffing his books with esoteric facts, which, together with a cast of splendidly eccentric characters ranging from white witches to unfrocked and frankly potty academics, corkscrew plots, wit, verve and some apposite social commentary, makes them unbeatable for sheer fun.

Rural Mississippi is the setting for some Southern gothic in Soil (Two Roads, £16.99), the first novel from American Jamie Kornegay. Idealistic Jay Mize, who’s won prizes for his compost, sinks everything into an experimental organic farm which fails within a year, during which his wife and son return to town, leaving him alone in a flood-wrecked landscape. When he discovers a corpse in a mudhole he fears that he will be blamed and finds a novel way of disposing of it (the compost obsession pays off), but the local deputy, Danny Shoals, a compulsive lecher who is after Jay’s wife, is becoming suspicious… Billed as ‘darkly comic’, Soil is really a bit too grim to be funny, and Jay’s paranoia isn’t built up enough early on to make his action in destroying the corpse entirely plausible – although here, a simple rearrangement of facts would have worked, as we find out later that he has a killer in his family tree. That said, the descriptions of the trashed countryside are hauntingly evocative and there is real pathos in the way that Jay, his mind increasingly adrift, tries in vain to battle the pitiless elements.

 

(c) Laura Wilson 2015