Former BBC foreign correspondent George Alagiah worked extensively in South Africa and he’s put his knowledge to good use in his debut novel. The Burning Land (Canongate, £14.99), is a political thriller that contrasts the perception of a post-apartheid ‘rainbow nation’ of equal opportunities with the corrupt and often violent reality, in which the gap between rich and poor grows wider by the day. Shady deals by people at the top are resulting in large tracts of the country being sold to foreign investors, leaving those who farmed it without jobs or homes. Activist Lesedi Montlantshe, son of a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner who is now busy lining his pockets with ill-gotten cash, is murdered. Childhood friends Lindi Seaton – well-intentioned daughter of white liberals who now works in conflict resolution – and Kagiso Rapabane – activist son of the Seatons’ former housekeeper – form an awkward alliance in order to discover the truth. Although Alagiah makes fairly heavy weather of the necessary scene setting and exposition in the first third of the novel, it’s worth hanging in there until the plot shifts up a gear for a gripping tale of events spinning out of control in a country struggling to redefine itself.
Things also get pretty heated in Manhattan in Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, Elevator Pitch (HQ, £20.00): someone is tampering with the lifts, causing people to plummet to their deaths, and leading, in a city full of skyscrapers, to wide-spread panic. It could be the work of the Flyovers, an alt-right group with grievances against the liberal elites of both coasts, or it could be someone with an altogether more personal agenda… While NYPD Detective Jerry Bourque investigates the murder of an elevator technician, Mayor Richard Headley agonises over what to do, and his number one critic, journalist Barbara Matheson, tries to uncover the truth. The plot, which also involves Headley’s son and Matheson’s daughter, is somewhat contrived, but Barclay does a good job of keeping all the characters in play in a proficient thriller that presses all the right buttons.
There’s more high-rise hell in the first novel from journalist Caroline Corcoran, Through the Wall (Avon, £7.99). Lexie and Harriet are neighbours in a smart, but poorly sound-proofed, London block. Lexie has gone freelance and is having carefully timed sex with partner Tom in an attempt to get pregnant. Increasingly isolated, she spends a lot of the day in pyjamas, listening out for Harriet, her glamorous, party-giving neighbour, and envying her. Meanwhile, Harriet, a blackout drinker with no real friends and an ex-fiancé, obsesses over Lexie, whose life, thanks to a carefully curated online persona, she believes to be perfect. The pair pass the narrative baton between them for a largely successful foray into Girl on the Train territory, replete with jealousy, stalking, gaslighting and control-freakery, although habitual readers of psychological thrillers may find the reveal, when it comes, to be something of a let-down.
The destructive outsider in American author Joshilyn Jackson’s latest book, Never Have I Ever (Raven Books, £12.99), is Roux, newcomer to a suburban community in Pensacola, Florida. When she hijacks the mothers’ book club by initiating a wine-fuelled game of confession (‘What’s the worst thing you ever did?’), diving instructor Amy senses trouble. Not only does her best friend’s husband’s affair come to light, but it’s clear that Roux not only knows Amy’s own secret – a crime committed as a teenager, that, although she has worked hard to rebuild her life, has haunted her ever since – but also intends to blackmail her. Determined to protect herself and her family, Amy retaliates by digging into her tormentor’s past to uncover her secrets. Jackson raises the stakes again and again in this skilfully plotted novel.
Cult lit – possibly because this July saw the 50th anniversary of the murders of Sharon Tate and friends by the followers of Charles Manson – seems to be having a moment. In The Family by Louise Jensen (HQ, £7.99), widow Laura is left emotionally and financially bereft after the sudden death of husband Gavan, and when the organic food co-operative who live at nearby Oak Tree Farm offer her and her 17-year-old daughter Tilly, a home, she accepts gratefully. It soon becomes clear their new ‘family’ isn’t entirely what it seems – the white clothing and the charismatic leader, the emphasis on security – and that there is something sinister going on… Although the cult itself is not entirely convincing, this is a very good study of vulnerability, and how our best intentions can often lead us astray.
Also set in Wales, A Shadow on the Lens (Orion, £14.99) by Sam Hurcom employs the folk horror staple of the rational outsider who arrives in a superstitious backwater to solve a mystery. It’s 1904, and Thomas Bexley, an early forensic photographer, travels to a remote village to investigate the gruesome murder of a young girl. The place is grim, the inhabitants sullen, the authorities keen to blame a party of travellers, and the frustrated Bexley soon falls into a fever, suffering appalling hallucinations. Uneven and marred by anachronisms, this is nevertheless a promising debut – Gothic, claustrophobic, and wonderfully dark.

© Laura Wilson, 2019