For most people in Britain, the sixties didn’t swing at all. In 1968, the majority of us were more worried about the devalued pound in our pocket than whether we were getting enough free love and/or psychedelic drugs. One group who definitely wouldn’t swing if you hung ‘em are the Marylebone CID in A Song from Dead Lips, the first novel from journalist and non-fiction writer William Shaw (Quercus, £12.99). This excellent police procedural begins with the discovery of a naked, strangled girl outside a block of flats in St. John’s Wood, near the famous Abbey Road Studios where Beatles fans camp out, hoping for a glimpse of their idols. DS Cathal Breen is in bad odour for deserting a colleague during an armed robbery and sidekick WPC Helen Tozer, the first woman in the unit apart from the secretary, finds herself treated with innuendo-laden hostility by her bewildered male colleagues. Racism, too, is endemic, evident both within the force and in the xenophobic accusations of the flat-dwellers. A gripping story, with two appealing protagonists and impeccably researched period detail well deployed throughout, neither over-emphasised nor underplayed.
Better known for science fiction and fantasy, American author Elizabeth Hand also writes a mean thriller. The protagonist of Available Dark (C&R Crime, £7.99) is Cassandra Neary, first encountered in Hand’s 2007 novel Generation Loss. Neary is very much a middleclass girl gone wrong – one cult photography book during the punk era, followed by thirty-odd years of booze- and drug-fuelled burnout. Now in her fifties, and still happily hoovering up the crystal meth, she’s lured to Helsinki by a fan who wants her to authenticate some photographs he’s thinking of buying. There she meets Ilkka Kaltunnen, a fashion photographer who has graduated from snapping the half starved to the actually dead, all arranged in postures based on a creepy Nordic folktale. When Kaltunnen and his assistant are found murdered, Neary flees to Iceland, where both her recent past and, in the form of an old lover, ancient history, start to catch up with her. With Neary’s wryly humorous narration, a virtual soundtrack of black metal and a cast of fans, fetishists and believers in ancient cults in a bleak and terrifying landscape, this is a dark, intense and genuinely edgy read.
It’s pretty nippy up in the Pyrenees, too, the setting for The Frozen Dead (Mulholland Books, £13.99), the first novel from Bernard Minier (translated by Alison Anderson) and a bestseller in his native France. Workers at a hydroelectric power plant find a decapitated horse which has been turned into a grisly Pegasus by being partially skinned and suspended from the support tower of the cable car which affords the only access to the place. It’s no ordinary nag but the property of industrialist and plant owner Eric Lombard, so Commandant Servaz is summoned from Toulouse to investigate. Servaz soon discovers DNA on the corpse from an inmate of the Wargnier Institute, a nearby secure unit for the criminally insane, and when a man is discovered hanging from a bridge and a connection is made to an epidemic of teenage suicides, things start to get very complicated and suspenseful indeed. Less convincing than Servaz’s narrative is that of psychologist Diane Berg, who, newly arrived at the Institute, exhibits a credibility-stretching penchant for creeping around a place chock-full of deranged serial killers in the middle of the night.
The latest novel from Northern Irish writer and former Whitbread Prize winner Maurice Leitch, Seeking Mr Hare (The Clerkenwell Press, £12.99) is a slice of intriguing speculation about what might have happened to the grave-robber who was granted immunity for turning King’s evidence against his partner, William Burke, and who, in 1829, disappeared from view. This version of Hare is considerably smarter than the brutish dullard described by contemporary observers. Although sometimes haunted by his past misdeeds, he is unrepentant, unscrupulous and pragmatic, returning to his native Ireland – his narration occasionally lapses into stagey Oirishness – where he goes to ground with mute servant girl Hannah in tow. He’s being tailed by former police detective Percival Speed, whose narrative takes the form of a series of letters to his patron, a seeker after unholy relics who seems to be based on novelist, collector and subject of scandal William Beckford. It’s a picaresque novel, almost meandering in places, but what Seeking Mr Hare lacks in intensity is more than compensated for by Leith’s rich characterisation and vivid depictions of life in nineteenth century Ulster.
For those of us who grew up reading Daphne du Maurier, Celia Fremlin and co., there’s a definite feeling of wheel-re-invention about the spate of woman-centered psychological thrillers bobbing in the Gone Girl slipstream. Precious Thing (Headline, £14.99), the first novel from Colette McBeth, is a superior example. Hot-shot TV reporter Rachel finds herself covering best-friend-at-school Clara’s sudden disappearance, and gradually realises that their childhood friendship was not quite what it seemed. An absorbing read, if rather over-dependent on coincidence.
© Laura Wilson, 2013