Pick of the crime novels

From Stuart MacBride's Scotland to Bruce Holsinger's medieval London

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

Stuart MacBride’s new novel, A Song for the Dying (HarperCollins, £16.99, Spectator Bookshop, £14.99), is markedly darker in tone than his excellent Logan McRae series. Set in a fictional Scottish city where a miasma of corruption oozes out of the very stones, most of its characters are sadistic, victimised or both. The narrator, Ash Henderson, appeared in an earlier, equally bleak novel. Now an ex-detective inspector, he’s being systematically persecuted in prison (where most of the other inmates seem to be former cops as well). Matters look up, at least for Henderson, when he is temporarily, if implausibly, seconded to help investigate a serial killer known as the Inside Man, who murders women and sews dolls into their stomachs.

All this reads like a recipe for a grim and unremittingly brutal story. It’s guilty as charged — but the novel is much more than this. MacBride constructs a powerful, swift-moving narrative that doesn’t so much surprise the reader as ambush him occasionally with a blunt instrument. He uses words with a dry, often witty precision. The police and forensic background feels authentic and up-to-date. Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but this is required reading for those who enjoy crime fiction with a bitter taste.

There’s a different flavour on offer in Cold Winter in Bordeaux (Quartet, £12, Spectator Bookshop, £10.80), Allan Massie’s third crime novel in his sequence set in Occupied France. It’s the winter of 1942, and the war is beginning to turn against the Germans. In Bordeaux, Superintendent Lannes is in the difficult position of having one son with the Free French and another in Vichy. His wife is depressed and his daughter has fallen in love with a young man who has the wrong sort of politics. The city’s Jews are under threat from the Germans. All this means that Lannes turns almost with relief to the murder of a woman in what looks like a crime of passion. Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that.

This is an admirable addition to the series that straddles the divide between crime and historical fiction. Massie’s great strength is his ability to reconstruct the extraordinary world of Occupied France, an ethical quagmire if ever there was one. There are plenty of incidental pleasures too, including an intriguing glimpse of the young Mitterand at a time when his political beliefs were a little different from those of his presidency.

Scandinavian crime fiction receives an unusual twist in Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm (Simon & Schuster, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £10.99). At its heart is a dilemma: whom should Daniel believe, his Swedish mother or his English father? Daniel lives in London. His parents have recently retired to a farm in Sweden. They don’t know that Daniel is gay. Then his father rings with the news that his mother has been committed to a mental hospital. Next, his mother, having escaped, turns up at Heathrow, urging him to listen to her side of the story, claiming his father and a neighbour are systematically persecuting her.

Daniel’s world is undermined — he realises he knows almost nothing about his parents as people. Gradually, first in England and later in rural Sweden, the sad truth emerges through a spare, tightly focused narrative. The forest is a potent symbol here, and fairytales sometimes provide a better route to the truth than parents do. Though Smith employs many devices found in crime fiction, The Farm doesn’t fit neatly in the genre: the novel is about parents and children, about the long consequences of concealment and lies, and about the need for honesty. It’s always interesting and never less than readable — but there’s a whiff of contrivance about the carefully patterned story.

Bruce Holsinger is a medievalist, and his profound knowledge of the 14th century provides a wonderfully convincing backdrop to his first novel, A Burnable Book (HarperCollins, £14.99, Spectator Bookshop, £13.49). Set mainly in London during the turbulent reign of Richard II, the plot turns on a subversive book of prophecies which appears to predict the King’s death, and which causes the murder of a woman in the Moorfields marshes. The book’s whereabouts becomes of pressing importance to two poets — Chaucer, in his guise as a government official with connections to John of Gaunt’s household, and his close friend, John Gower, here an enigmatic figure who makes a living by procuring and selling information.

The use of historical figures as investigators, more or less, is often an ominous sign in a crime novel. But not in this case. Holsinger breathes fictional life into the poets, partly because he has such an impressive knowledge of their world. But he also has the skill to use it judiciously in the service of his story. His London feels like a real place, from St Paul’s churchyard to Southwark’s Gropecunt Lane. Comparisons with C.J. Sansom are inevitable, and justified.

Peter May is best known for his Lewis Island Trilogy set in the Outer Hebrides. His new novel, Entry Island (Quercus, £16.99, Spectator Bookshop, £13.99), is a standalone, an attempt to blend a police procedural set on a Canadian island with elements of Scottish history 200-odd years earlier.

In this case, the island of the title lies in the Gulf of St Lawrence. A wealthy inhabitant is murdered in his own home. His wife, Kirsty, possessor of a pair of ‘dark, crystal-cut blue eyes’, claims that a masked intruder was responsible, but the evidence points to her. A team from the Quebec Sûreté is despatched to investigate. It includes Detective Sime Mackenzie, haunted by ghosts in his own past and in that of his Gaelic ancestors. As soon as he sees Kirsty, he’s convinced he has met her before. The present-day story is intercut with a narrative exploring a second timeframe, involving dark deeds in the Highland Clearances.

May is excellent on locations, especially the province of Quebec with its uneasy co-existence of two languages and two cultures. However, the Scottish strand in the past tends to overwhelm the murder investigation in the present, which is a dull and perfunctory affair. The result is a novel which is admirably ambitious but not altogether successful.

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