Murder at Margate — and other crimes of passion

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

Mr Todd is a lonely man, out of work, nursing a thousand grudges while he ekes out a living with his grown-up son, Adrian. He believes Adrian is dangerous, a threat to other people. But the real evil might be living inside Mr Todd’s head.

This is the squalid battleground set out by Iain Maitland in Mr Todd’s Reckoning (Contraband, £8.99). Skirmishes take place in a rundown bungalow, giving father and son few places to hide. There is no relief from intimate noises and petty arguments. When Adrian brings home a girlfriend and her young child, Mr Todd’s world crumbles at the seams. The consequences are horrible.

Maitland conjures madness from the inside, looking out. We view the world only as Mr Todd sees it, as he converts true-life stories into fables of self-justification. Sensitive readers beware: this book is very, very nasty in places. The voice inside records the build up of irritants, until violence is the only possible release. It has the feel of a low-budget Hitchcock movie, as moments of empathy for the protagonist are continually torn aside. Both repellent and fascinating at the same time, this is a brave book, tackling a difficult subject and never backing away from its true implications.

Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secret (Sphere, £18.99) also tackles madness, but from a more forgiving distance. It’s a continuation of the DI Tom Thorne series, but the real focus settles on the two criminals, a classic mismatched couple. Conrad is a confidence trickster who targets women, charming them and then exploiting their love for him in order to steal their fortunes. His latest mark is Sarah, a single mother. But all is not what it seems, for Sarah has secrets of her own; one of them, concerning her son, quite startling in its nature. The conman falls head over heels; but how far will he go to please his mistress?

Detective Thorne is alerted to the conman’s presence when a former victim kills herself in a Tube station. When this suicide connects with a dead body found on Margate beach, the story takes on weight and complexity, pondering that age-old question: how can passion turn into murder? Thorne and his colleague, Tanner, play second-best to Conrad and Sarah — a fragile yet brutal relationship with a built-in self-destruct button. The only question is: who will push it, and when?

Back in 1976, Glasgow had its very own forms of criminality. Welcome to the Heady Heights by David F. Ross (Orenda, £8.99), which captures the age perfectly, warts and wounds and all. Archie Blunt is an out-of-luck driver who just needs one big chance to escape the squalor of his life. It never comes, and he sinks into petty gangsterism. But then Archie does a favour for a showbiz star, Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, and he sees a way out. His plan? To put together a group of unruly working-class kids, call them the High Five, give them a song to sing, and put them on Heady’s TV talent show. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, just about everything. Archie’s made too many enemies along the way, and they all want their revenge. This is the year when punk rock broke, and that genre’s rhythms and sentiments pervade the book, giving it a brittle, funny, abrasive, swaggering atmosphere, charged with lust and greed. Most of all it’s a love-hate poem to the Glasgow of that time. Fame is the only way out. If only Archie could grasp hold of the tail-end of stardom! It’s a blast to follow his progress: down at heel, but never down at heart.

Another city, another era. Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars (Canongate, £14.99) takes us back to 1863, when ‘anomalies of the flesh’ were all the rage, both in circus shows and for medical study. Bridie Devine is a domestic investigator, one of the few women working in that field. She takes on the case of a missing girl, Christabel. But Christabel turns out to be a wondrous child, a creature of hybrid nature, and a good number of interested parties are vying for her ownership. London unfolds in all its tarnished glory as the search for the lost girl continues through streets both high and low.

Bridie is a marvellous creation, imbued with a deeply romantic spirit, and the words used to describe her are often beautiful and inspired. This book has a rare attraction. The capital is portrayed as a freak show of the age, where the real monsters are purely human specimens out for what they can get. Kidd has a brilliant imagination and she’s fearless in her use of it: her no. 1 job as writer seems to be to astonish the reader, and she certainly does that. Yes, it’s an over-egged pudding, but my, what a feast.

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