Crazy nannies and missing children: the latest crime fiction reviewed

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Madeline Stevens’s debut thriller, Devotion (Faber, £12.99), might more appropriately have been titled ‘Desire’. It’s a riff on that old standby: the crazy nanny story. Except, in this case, both the nanny and the mother of the children are equal contestants in the madness stakes.

Ella is poor and adrift in the city. It seems like a golden opportunity when she’s hired to look after the offspring of the rich and very beguiling Lonnie and James. Cue temptation. Ella is soon obsessing over Lonnie, trying on her clothes, rifling through her personal hygiene products. Does she love her employer, or does she want to kill her?

This is a New York state of mind novel, very much in love with its own kinkiness. With a central character both quirky and loathsome, any hopes of identification are quickly dashed. Not that it matters. The book is nicely written, and very dark and sexy in places, like a Leonard Cohen song in a second-hand designer dress. Ella is constantly daring herself to do something provocative, in order to feel alive, or at least not bored. Both Ella and Lonnie are conducting experiments in life and love, but who is the predator, who the prey?

Disappearing Earth (Scribner, £12.99) by Julia Phillips takes the kidnapping of two young children as a starting point, using the incident to explore hope, fear and grief on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka. Weeks pass, then months, and the children are still not found. The police make no progress. The close-knit community copes with the tragedy as best it can. Each chapter deals with a different set of people — parents, friends, teachers, strangers — looking at how the case of the missing girls affects them, whether directly or at a tangent.

Sometimes the girls are central to the tale, or they might be mentioned only for a few lines, almost in passing. I found myself eager for those moments of connection to arrive. This is a great structure: intriguing, tantalising, perfectly executed. Arising from this central crime, in fits and starts, a portrait of a people and a land comes slowly into focus. I was reminded of the concept albums of my prog rock youth — a series of songs on a theme. I can see the record sleeve in my mind: The Village of the Lost.

Early one morning at Peterborough station, a young man readies himself for suicide. So begins Louise Doughty’s Platform Seven (Faber, £12.99). A woman, Lisa Evans, tries to save him, but fails, and the man leaps to his death in front of a train. We quickly learn that Lisa had absolutely no chance of saving him, because … (deep breath) … Lisa is a ghost — a suicide victim herself, a fellow jumper from platform seven. She is also our narrator. The bulk of the novel explores the reasons for Lisa taking her own life, and asks the question: are the two suicides connected in some way?

The dead are troublesome storytellers. If we’re playing by the correct rules of afterlife narrative, ghosts can have only a remembered knowledge of human feeling, and they cannot physically engage with reality. They are reliant on description, masses of it, to constantly fix themselves in place. And Platform Seven really does describe things — at length — especially during the section which deals with Lisa’s sorry love life. The final pages are very moving, I will say that; but a much shorter book could have packed more spiritual oomph.

The weirdness of everyday life is beautifully explored in Helen Phillips’s The Need (Chatto, £16.99). Molly is a paleobotanist, examining a dig in a fossil quarry. Some very strange objects have been uncovered in the strata, including a version of the Bible that offers a new take on the nature of God. This causes controversy, and Molly and her fellow workers receive death threats. On top of which, when she gets home from work that day to look after her children, she realises that an intruder is hidden in the house.

This is a difficult book to review because of the many surprises that lie in store for the reader. A steady flow of unease seeps off the pages. Suffice it to say that the intruder is not quite of this world. The Need’s true subject is motherhood, rendered here as a painful, visceral, almost impossibly tender undertaking. In contrast to this extreme normality, the supernatural elements tingle like bugs against the skin. In all, a grand achievement. The novel exists on that narrow borderline where strangeness merges with the mundane, and Phillips is both an explorer, and a brilliant chronicler of this murky realm.

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