Anthony Horowitz’s 2016 novel Magpie Murders offered an ingenious twist on a classic whodunnit, and his latest book, The Word is Murder (Century, £20.00), takes things a step further, with a mash-up of fact and fiction. Six hours after she has made arrangements for her own funeral, wealthy widow Diana Cowper is found strangled. It might be a straightforward robbery-gone-wrong, but ex-cop Hawthorne, currently employed by Scotland Yard on a freelance basis, thinks otherwise, and asks Horowitz if he’d like to tag along and write up an account of his investigation. There’s plenty of meta-fictional fun to be had, but readers may find themselves more interested in the uneasy relationship between Hawthorne and the fictionalised author, and in Horowitz’s reflections on his career to date, than they are in the somewhat under-engineered plot.
When authors insert themselves into their fiction, there is a sense in which all bets are off – something that is also true of the work of French author Pascal Garnier (1949-2010). Startling and surprisingly moving, Garnier’s novels tend to centre on strange goings-on in French provincial settings, creating a world that is at once familiar and utterly bizarre, in which anything might happen. In Low Heights (Gallic, £8.99, translated by Melanie Florence), grumpy contrarian businessman Edouard Lavenant has retired, post-stroke, to a village in the mountains, where he engages in sniping matches with his nurse-cum-housekeeper and tries to write his memoirs. He experiences the loneliness of the elderly survivor and fears for his faculties: ‘A word was blinking in his head like a hazard light: SENILE.’ This, and various portents – the circling vultures, the two women who keep appearing, and the death-by-articulated lorry of a tricycling child – show us that all is not well, and when a stranger appears at the door claiming to be Lavenant’s long-lost son, things start to go horribly wrong in entirely unexpected ways.
Five bodies found in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains National Park are the starting point for Sleeping Beauties, the third book in Jo Spain’s Inspector series featuring Inspector Thomas Reynolds of Dublin’s Murder Investigation Unit (Quercus, £13.99). All the corpses are of young women who have disappeared in recent years, and they were held captive for some time before they died. It’s likely that they are the victims of a serial killer – and Reynolds and his colleagues need to find missing Fiona Holland before he adds her to his tally. Adding to the stress is the fact that Reynolds’s new boss seems more at home with PR than policing. There’s a good balance between pace and pathos – Reynolds’s old boss and mentor Sean McGuiness, who has retired in order to take care of a wife in the grip of Alzheimer’s, is especially touching – and Spain handles the age-old victim-blaming attitudes surrounding the investigation with a matter-of-factness that makes them all the more reprehensible. This, plus deft plotting and expert handling of tension, add up to a dark and intelligent mystery,
Emily Elgar’s debut, If You Knew Her (Sphere, £7.99) is a welcome addition to the ranks of coma lit. Cassie Jensen, victim of a mysterious accident in a country lane, is taken to the critical care ward at St Catherine’s Hospital, Sussex, where she lies in a coma. In the next bed is Frank Ashcroft, inert but alert. The doctors think that Frank is in a Persistent Vegetative State, and only Alice, the compassionate and intuitive nurse, realises that he is suffering from ‘Locked In’ syndrome – or, as he himself puts it, ‘trapped in my body, like a straightjacket.’ Unable to communicate, he becomes both unwitting confessor to Alice, and an eavesdropper who pieces together the true reason for Cassie’s condition from actions and conversations that he is not considered able to see or hear, much less understand. He, Alice, and a pre-coma Cassie pass the narrative baton between them, and slowly the stories weave together for a fine character study, particularly in the case of Frank, who lives in a world of regrets – the drinking, the wrecked marriage, the bitter-sweet relationship with his daughter – and a slow but wonderfully insidious build-up of tension.
Caleb Zelic, private investigator and narrator of Australian writer Emma Viskic’s outstanding debut Resurrection Bay (Pushkin Vertigo, £12.99), is cut off from the world by a profound deafness which has made him not only a vigilant observer of non-verbal clues, but also a human bulwark against emotional closeness. When he goes to an old friend’s home and discovers that the man has been brutally murdered, he must – with the aid of his partner, ex-cop Frankie, and a final text message from the dead man – prove his innocence by finding the killer. Set between Melbourne and the eponymous coastal town where Caleb grew up, this is a gripping and violent tale with a hero who is both original and appealing.
© Laura Wilson, 2017