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Secret treaties and games of cat and mouse: a choice of recent crime fiction

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

Almost any promising writer of spy fiction can expect at some point to be called the ‘next Le Carré’, an accolade even more promiscuously applied since the death of the master. James Wolff has immediate credentials to jump the queue, since, like Le Carré, he uses a pseudonym and claims to work at the Foreign Office — though his familiarity with surveillance techniques suggests a slightly different employer.

How to Betray Your Country (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99) arrives as the second in a planned trilogy, hard on the heels of Wolff’s striking debut, Beside the Syrian Sea. August Drummond is a former British intelligence officer, cashiered for insubordination after the sudden death of his tricky but entirely beloved wife. On a flight to Turkey, he impetuously decides to impersonate a recruit of Islamic extremists who’s then arrested on landing, and in this guise Drummond meets the man’s controller.

A cat and mouse struggle ensues, between Drummond’s efforts to uncover the target of his terrorist assignment and the inevitability of his own exposure. As tension mounts we meet a series of vivid minor characters, including an especially awful former colleague. The story’s Turkish setting is evocatively portrayed, and the prose throughout manages to be of the highest calibre yet elegantly inconspicuous. Two bull’s-eyes from two throws suggest the arrival of a major talent.

Jonathan Ames’s A Man Named Doll (Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99) comes with more than the usual publishing fanfare (including an exuberant endorsement from Lee Child), a catchy title, and many of the attributes and attitudes of LA noir. Happy Doll is an ex-cop turned private investigator; he’s 6ft 2in and weighs 190 lean pounds, suggesting that if push comes to shove it will be Doll who does the pushing.

Yet his chief interaction is with his dog George, and Doll has other quirks — he must be the only LA private eye in analysis, with a past, it’s hinted, full of mental fragility. He also works nights as the bouncer in a massage parlour, and it’s in its seedy confines that he finds himself forced to shoot deada punter who’s gone berserk. That the victim turns out to be the son of a long-serving LAPD policeman proves the least of Doll’s problems, since soon after the initial shooting an old friend arrives at Doll’s house, fatally wounded. Just before dying he hands over a valuable diamond, and a notebook that becomes the plot’s Pandora’s box.


There is no point demanding from a novel what the author doesn’t want to give, and Ames seems content to stay largely within the traditional limits of the American hard-boiled school. The writing is sprightly, and if Ames is sometimes simile mad, Happy Doll is nonetheless a protagonist most readers will be glad to hear from again.

Simon Scarrow is a successful author of historical novels set during the Roman empire. He has recently branched out, and Blackout (Headline, £20) is a thriller set in Nazi Germany during the early days of the war. The transition is not altogether successful.

Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is assigned to what at first seems the random murder of a woman on a train. But this is soon followed by others, committed during blackout, and Schenke comes under intense pressure from his party-member superiors to solve the case. When he discovers links between the murders and the Nazi regime, he finds both his career and life in jeopardy.

The writing is competent, if often imperfectly elaborate. The historical research puts everyone and everything in the right places — from the colour of forged meat rationing tickets to the siting of that old faithful, the Gestapo headquarters, on Prinz-Albrecht- Strasse. Scarrow clearly knows his Oberführers from his Hauptsturmführers, but once a certain authenticity is established, less is usually more than enough. A larger problem with Blackout comes from another author — the late Philip Kerr and his near-totemic hero Bernie Gunther, also for a time a detective in the Berlin police. For all his bad temper and violence, Gunther is incisively intelligent, funny and what Americans would call a stand-up guy. Horst Schenke, despite his democratic leanings (he even drops the ‘von’ his birthright entitles him to) and his past as a racing car driver, is the one thing we never want a protagonist to be — dull.

The Hotel Tito was the prize-winning debut novel of a young Croatian poet, Ivana Bodroži, a chilling autobiographical story of a girl’s buffeting during the Yugoslav wars. Her new novel, We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day (Seven Stories Press, £10.99) is set in present day Vukovar (though the city is never named) and is the story of a young woman journalist who, sent on assignment to the city, tries to avenge the murder of her father in the conflict almost 30 years earlier.

The effect of the war on the divided city runs through the novel like a half-healed wound — the conflict recent enough to have touched the lives of everyone the journalist encounters, yet sufficiently distant to mean people are desperate to forget it. The dichotomy is perfectly captured by the description of death pits, containing the corpses of countless victims, that are now covered by tarmac laid down to make a parking lot for a new shopping mall. The writing is elliptical, poetic and shimmering — at least in the excellent translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac. It is no spoiler to reveal that, as in real-life Vukovar, there is nothing upbeat about the ending, but instead a sense that it is at once terrible and true.

Which leaves, finally, the more cheerful Andrew Taylor, well known to these pages, and a writer with an impressive pedigree. His breakthrough novel, The American Boy, revealed a deft ability to write historical fiction without its then-standard appendages of thees and thous. More recently, he has produced a sequence of novels set in 17th-century London, and The Royal Secret (Harper Collins, £14.99) is the fifth in the series, though it can certainly be read on its own. Its protagonists are again the government agent James Marwood and Cat Lovett, now Hakesby, the widow of an architect-builder whose business she has inherited after his early death.

Exploring the mysterious poisoning of a fellow official, Marwood stumbles upon secret negotiations between Britain and its arch-enemy France; meanwhile, the Dutch are working surreptitiously to subvert any entente. The relationship of Marwood and Cat remains, frustratingly for Marwood, ‘one of mutual assistance rather than affection’, though there are intimations of a closeness yet to come, despite the arrival on the scene of a suspect Dutchman whom Cat finds disturbingly attractive.

The story’s settings, mainly London but also a ghastly Dover Castle, are credibly but unobtrusively wrought; and the minor characters, who include a wonderfully venomous servant girl, add to the growing tension as the plot unfolds. The writing has no particular dynamism, but is always straightforward and often elegant, even eloquent — one rereads a Taylor sentence not because his meaning’s unclear but simply to enjoy it afresh. As one can do with his story as a whole, which is a pleasure from start to finish.

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