Books Reviewed by Val McDermid Winner of this year's Golden Dagger Award All reviews originally appear in the Manchester Evening News and are kindly supplied by the author. Photo of Val by Jerry Bauer.
Cause of Death, by Patricia
(Little, Brown, £16.99)
Patricia Cornwell's first three Kay Scarpetta thrillers were among the best crime novels of the decade. The last three to feature the Virginian medical examiner have been increasingly disappointing, but for the first hundred pages of Cause of Death, her old touch seems to have reasserted itself. A genuine mystery -- a scuba diver killed by cyanide poisoning; an unusual and fascinating background -- the graveyard for decommissioned naval ships; and an overall air of menacing threat both from right-wing fundamentalists and the authorities. And then it all falls apart in a welter of melodrama and paranoia. American terrorists invade a nuclear power station to steal plutonium for Colonel Gaddhafi, Scarpetta makes an overnight dash to London for no other apparent reason than to give British Airways and Concorde a cracking plug, then she saves the world -- or at least the Eastern seaboard of the USA -- from nuclear meltdown with one mighty bound. If the characters had been engaging and credible, Cornwell might just have pulled it off, so considerable is her mastery of page-turning technique. But there isn't a single human interraction in this novel that strikes a chord in me. These people are dysfunctional, emotionally dyslexic and deeply dislikeable. Cornwell has apparently decided to take a break from Scarpetta and create a new character. Her fans can only hope she will rediscover the humanity that made her earlier novels so breathtakingly good.
Hen's Teeth, by Manda Scott
(The Women's Press, £6.99)
When the phone wakes Dr Kellen Stewart, it seems like a bad dream. Her former best friend is calling to say her ex-lover is inexplicably dead and the police are swarming. The past is too strong to allow Kellen to ignore the cry for help. Convinced in spite of the evidence that this is murder, she starts to probe into the secret world of doctors and scientists and finds them more twisted than a DNA helix. Before she can draw breath, she finds herself up against a cunning and cruel killer who will stop at nothing to achieve his destructive ends. Street drugs, leading edge science, computer hacking and a pair of anarchic investigators who know they can do a better job than the cops prove a heady and page-turning mix. With a complex, intelligent plot that rips the mask of a bedside manner away from medicine and science, a firmly rooted sense of place that conjures up modern Glasgow -- gritty, grand and gruesome -- and a cast of characters who convince and co-opt the reader to their cause, Hen's Teeth is a remarkable debut. Every now and again, a writer bursts on the scene with a distinctive voice crackling with energy, assured and authoritative. Manda Scott is one of those rare specimens and Hen's Teeth is a thriller that demands attention.
Without Consent, by Frances Fyfield
After five novels featuring, among assorted murders, the stuttering progress of their relationship, Helen West, cynical Crown Prosecutor and generous-spirited friend, has finally agreed to wed Geoffrey Bailey, principled police superintendent and baffled victim of his own loyalties. But the countdown to the ceremony is disrupted when Bailey's best man and former sidekick Det. Sgt. Ryan is accused of rape. It's an allegation even his friends find hard to see as impossible or even unlikely. His contention -- that he's been framed while out there is a pervert who preys on women in unimaginable, humiliating ways that may be untouchable by the law -- is regarded as laughable. But when Helen starts to uncover strange incongruences in the stories of one victim, a truth more bizarre than even Ryan dared imagine starts to emerge. As ever, Fyfield's prose reads effortlessly, economical yet rich, redolent with the atmosphere of her beloved London. Without Consent is an absorbing and terrifying novel that strips away the strategies people develop to survive and exposes how vulnerable even the strongest are to humiliation and destruction. Written with compassion and insight, at times almost painfully moving, this is fiction that makes us both flinch and comprehend.
Valentine, by Tom Savage
(£16.99, Hodder & Stoughton)
Best-seling mystery author Jill Talbot has a dark secret in her past, a foolish mistake from her student days so long ago she's almost forgotten the cruel humiliation she participated in. But the victim has not forgotten, nor forgiven. Now he's back. And she has no idea. He's out there, stalking her, watching her. And as Valentine's Day approaches, he's counting the hours till he can finally exact his revenge. But Jill is determined not to be ground down by her assailant. She's not going to be some helpless female victim -- she's going to fight back with all the weapons she can lay her hands on. But it's not always easy to fight when you don't know who your enemy is. Tom Savage has worked for years in New York's Murder Ink, the world's oldest mystery bookshop, and he knows his crime writers, which gives him a head start in creating a realistic portrait of how a life can be infiltrated and undermined by a determined psychopath. At a time when stalking has been in the headlines, Valentine is a shocking and salutory reminder of how insidious this crime can be. Packed with shocks and surprises, Valentine should cure all practical jokers. For good.
Payment Deferred, by
Tam Buchanan is an Edinburgh solicitor who still has enough compassion to service a free Legal Advice clinic. But even Tam doesn't want to know his former friend Murray Kingston when he turns up claiming he was framed after serving three years for sexually abusing his daughter. But Tam's reckoned without the crusading zeal of his new, unwanted volunteer assistant Fizz Fitzpatrick. Before he knows what's happening, his love life is in ruins, his golf is consigned to history, he's up to his neck in raking over the complicated past of Murray and his murky past, and the innocent-looking Fizz seems to be taking over. But just when the pieces seem to be falling into place, the prime suspect ends up impaled on spiked railings and it begins to look like Murray is not blameless as he seems. With Fizz and Tam, Payment Deferred introduces a sparky pair of sleuths whose relationship provides plenty of opportunities for wit and confusion. Engaging and entertaining, it builds to a spectacular climax involving a pipe band, a dancing troupe of Zulus and a collapsing team of stilt walkers and a police chase. Deft, daft and definitely delicious.
by Peter Turnbull
Peter Turnbull's Glasgow-based 'P' squad novels were as gripping and authentic as any British police procedurals. Now he's turned his attention to Yorkshire, and this, the second in his new series, is as disturbing a crime novel as I have ever read. To say it deals with the horrific Satanic abuse of children invites dismissal, given the hysteria and moral panic that the subject invariably produces in the media when groups of children are wrenched from their homes in dawn raids. But Turnbull, himself a social worker for twenty-three years, writes of the appalling defilement of human beings with so cool and dispassionate an eye and builds his case so conclusively it's hard to resist the conclusion that these mightmares really do lurk beneath the surface of our society. The novel begins with the discovery of the partly-burned corpse of a malnourished and hideously abused young boy. From there, the increasingly incredulous officers of York City CID start to unravel a wicked and vicious conspiracy that undermines everything they believe about themselves and their world. Bleak, written with rare economy and moving clarity, Embracing Skeletons is not for the weak of stomach or the faint of heart. It will haunt me for a long time to come.
Under The Beetle's
Cellar, by Mary Willis Walker
Just as the north of England breeds great comedians, so Texas breeds religious fundamentalists with a hot line to God and the definitive timetable for the apocalypse. Every now and again, one of them loses their few remaining marbles and another Waco siege fills the TV screens. That's the starting point for Mary Willis Walker's latest chilling suspense thriller. The self-styled Samuel Mordecai claims to be the anointed organiser of the end of the world as we know it and to kick-start the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he has abducted a busload of children and deposited them in an underground dungeon so they can be purified for sacrifice. But no-one on the outside knows where the children are stashed, so storming the compound can only end in hideous bloodshed. Enter tenacious investigative journalist Molly Cates, a woman who thinks defeat is the things on the end of de legs. Armed with the most slender of leads, Molly and the captured bus driver engage in a claustrophobic battle of wits with Mordecai that ends in a heart-stopping, heart-rending climax where dramatic action and emotion link to get the reader cheering. Don't start reading this at bedtime unless you're prepared to stay up all night finishing it.
Unnatural Acts, by Dylan
When Rhys Jacob's sister is brutally murdered at a medical convention in Chicago, the Welsh doctor is determined that her killer must be caught. But Lou Bek, the cop in charge of the case, seems curiously reluctant to get the investigation moving. What Rhys doesn't know is that Bek suspects his schizophrenic brother is the murderer and he's prepared to go to any lengths to save him from arrest. Caught between the two warring men, Susan Mackie is a young detective with a lot to prove. Torn between loyalty to the job and her desire for justice, Susan is forced to be front runner in a race against time to unmask a brutally twisted serial killer whose very existence no-one had suspected. Grim and gruesome, taut and terrifying, Unnatural Acts is a nail-biter that gets the adrenaline surging through the veins. Dylan Jones successfully treads the narrow line between dramatically revealing the horrors of the psychopathic mind and the voyeuristic relishing of sick violence. Not one for the squeamish.
There's no stocking filler I like
better than a short story anthology. It's hard over the festive season to find enough time
to concentrate on a novel, and short stories fill the gaps perfectly, like nibbles at a
party. And there's a bumper crop this year.
The Orion Book Of Murder, ed. Peter Haining
(Orion, £16.99) Split into the three sections of crime, detection and punishment, Haining brings together the cream of crime in these previously published short stories. The contents list reads like a Who's Who of crime fiction, ranging from Agatha Christie to James Ellroy, from Colin Dexter to Linda LaPlante. Probably the most comprehensive anthology in the shops -- for those with strong wrists.
Perfectly Criminal, ed. Martin Edwards
(Severn House, £15.99) Containing specially commissioned stories on the theme of the perfect crime, this is the official anthology of the Crime Writers' Association which includes -- as well as a Manchester-based piece by yours truly -- the Ian Rankin story that won this year's The Macallan Short Story Dagger award. Other contributors include Reginald Hill, Peter Lovesey, Susan Moody and Lesley Grant-Adamson.
Women On The Case, ed. Sara Paretsky
(Virago, £16.99) Brand new stories from a wide range of women writers, some new, some well-established. Stand-out contributions include those from Elizabeth George, Dicey Scroggins Jackson, Andrea Smith and Nevada Barr. A handful of the stories seem to have a slender connection to crime, but justify their inclusion by their thought-provoking themes. Not for women only.
Murder for Love, ed. Otto Penzler (Orion, £16.99)
A terrific collection of original stories by America's finest criminal minds, all dealing with the relationships between passion and passing on. Split equally between male and female writers, this is a fascinating read at a time of year when relationships come under extreme pressure round the festive table. Authors range from Ed McBain to Joyce Carol Oates, from James Crumley to Mary Higgins Clark.
Sins of the Fathers, ed. Mark Bryant (Gollancz, £15.99)
If the devil has all the best tunes, it's clear he sometimes uses the clergy to play them on. Touching on each of the seven deadly sins, Mark Bryant's collection features clerics as criminals, victims and detectives. A distinguished collection ranging from Conan Doyle to Saki, it disappointed me by leaving out interesting contemporary clerical crime writers like D.M.Greenwood. Classics for the connoisseur.
The Killing Spirit, ed. Jay Hoppler (Canongate, £8.99) More than a short story collection, this definitive guide to the hit man's trade also contains poems, a screenplay, extracts from novels and a guide to assassin movies. Damon Runyon, Lawrence Block, Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith all find a place in this intriguing anthology, great to dip in and out of whenever you want to fantasize about getting rid of Great Aunt Ethel. And finally, something completely different.
It's Dark In London, ed Oscar Zarate (Serpent's Tail, £9.99)
is a collection of graphic short stories. These comic book short stories are definitely for adults only, and feature a series of imaginative collaborations between writers like Neil Gaiman, Chris Petit and Stella Duffy and artists like Warren Pleece, Dix and Dave McKean. Wierd and wired, and not much like Superman. Definitely different.
Murder In A
Cathedral, by Ruth Dudley Edwards
(HarperCollins, £14.99) At a time when the Church of England seems hell-bent on tearing itself apart, it's hard to imagine satirical excesses that could eclipse the reality. Enter Ruth Dudley Edwards, scourge of the Establishment, with something to outrage every faction. Westonbury Cathedral is convulsed with strife when a politically naive bishop is cast upon the turbulent waters of conflict between the high-church queens and the low church God Squad. His prayers are bizarrely answered in the form of the iconoclastic Baroness Troutbeck, her reluctant minder Robert Amiss and the Beast of Revelations in the shape of Plutarch the cat. Corpses in the cathedral follow in short order, complicated by blackmail, burglary and New Age mumbo-jumbo. No-one is writing wittier mystery fiction in Britain today than Ruth Dudley Edwards. Matricide at St Martha's, now available in paperback, is the funniest novel ever written about Oxbridge. With Murder In A Cathedral, her Irish-bred take on our institutions is sharp and scabrous as ever as she leaves the clergy without a prayer. This is a book that would make God laugh out loud.
Breach Of Trust, by
(Century, £9.99) When blue-blood lawyer Scott Sterling is caught with his fingers in someone else's trust fund to the tune of $2 million, it's hard for his peers to believe he could be so stupid. But there's no arguing with the evidence. Even his lawyer Dan Casella thinks he's been hired for damage limitation only. The only person who seems to believe in Scott is Casella's assistant Jennifer Lodge. But Jennifer makes the fatal mistake of sleeping with the boss and finds herself dumped from the case. As she fights to rebuild her career, she is drawn in spite of herself into the complexities of Sterling's case, slowly realising that nothing is quite as it seems in the hall of mirrors that is the American legal system. The plot wriggles and twists like a worm in a jam jar as Jennifer struggles to make sense of what is happening around her. A little heavy on the romantic angles for the hard-core legal thriller fan, this is a deftly plotted and cleverly executed debut from Philadelphia lawyer MacDougal.
The Clinic, by Jonathan
(Little Brown, £14.99) To veteran homicide detective Milo Sturgis, the murder of feminist academic psychologist and TV pundit Hope Devane looks too precise and too hate-driven to be the work of a random killer. When he is lumbered with the three-month old investigation, he knows he needs the help of psychologist Dr Alex Delaware to unlock the secrets that will kick-start his re-investigation. Painstakingly, Delaware and Sturgis start to strip away the camouflage of Devane's world, revealing strange secrets in her private and professional lives. Then another victim turns up in another city, a high-class hooker with no apparent connection to Devane apart from the cold execution of their deaths. As with many of Kellerman's books, The Clinic is a slow burn that builds up speed as it sucks the reader in irresistibly, forcing us to turn those pages to a gruesome and tragic ending that raises the question of who the real victims are. Disconcerting and distressing, this is no glib and superficial thriller. It's anatomy of multiple murder that reveals how the past shapes the present in the saddest of ways.
The Possessions of a Lady, by
(Century, £15.99) The Lovejoy novels are in a class of their own, infinitely superior to the oversimplification of the TV series. That's not the fault of the programme makers. It's because the originals are so rich in antiques lore, so convoluted in their multi-stranded story-telling and so bizarre in their cast of characters it would be impossible to render them in the two dimensions of TV without driving viewers stark, staring bonkers. The latest in one of the most entertaining series around is no exception. The starting point (I think!) is that someone is outguessing Lovejoy. No sooner has his inner Geiger counter gone off the scale with the vibrations of a genuine antique than someone is sneaking behind his back and cutting a deal before Lovejoy's own ducking and diving can pay off. Add the usual complications of Lovejoy's sex life, a viciously satirical look at the fashion business and an insider's view of a manor house contents auction and this has to be one of the richest feasts currently between hard covers. Crammed with scams, packed with attitude, The Possessions of a Lady also takes Lovejoy away from his native East Anglia and casts him adrift in his (and the author's) native ground of Bolton. Divinely dizzy, this is the very antidote to too much Christmas. Save it for a Boxing Day treat.
Black and Blue, by Ian Rankin (Orion, £16.99 & £9.99)
Bible John was a real serial killer who stalked Glasgow women in the late 1960s. Growing up in a Scotland then, I can remember the fear and hysteria that surrounded this bogeyman, like a Caledonian Ripper. He killed on three documented occasions, and then he stopped. Dead, incarcerated or diverted, Bible John disappeared from the criminal landscape of people's minds. But now he's back. Or at least, he appears to be. Only this time, they're calling him Johnny Bible. For most authors, that would be more than enough of a peg to hang a thriller on. For Ian Rankin, one of the most skilled practitioners of the genre, it's just a starting point for an intricate, devious novel that has more twists and turns than the alleys of Edinburgh's Old Town. His protagonist, Detective Inspector John Rebus, still on a downward spiral of self-destruction with the power to depress readers never mind the man himself, has been banished to the Lothian Police equivalent of hell, a minor league division on a council estate where crackheads and criminals outnumber the straight citizens. A bizarre death leads Rebus into strange by-ways that seem to lead inexorably both to the oil industry and to Bible John. Add to that the TV documentary crew filming a 'miscarriage of justice' special about one of his old cases, an internal inquiry led by an officer Rebus has accused of corruption, the last-chance possibility of love in the nick of time, and it's not surprising that this fiendishly complex book is a real attention-grabber. Rebus, faced with the destruction of his career and his what remains of his self-respect, is finally forced to confront the man he has become and to decide if he is prepared to do something about it. Rankin's tartan noir universe is always engrossing. With Black and Blue he has given Rebus new dimensions that have the reader sympathising and rooting for the big man. Certainly the best-constructed of his novels to date, this is a superbly balanced thriller that shows the real quality of British crime writing at its best.
A Time For Justice, by Nick Oldham (Headline, £16.99) Serving Lancashire policeman Nick Oldham has decided it's time to show crime writers what police work is really like. Opening with a spectacular set-piece motorway explosion that kills dozens, he moves swiftly on to a Mafia-based thriller plot about drug-running, a hit man and revenge, featuring disgraced cop Henry Christie. In spite of its exciting storyline, A Time For Justice is a pretty plodding read, planting its feet as firmly as those two coppers in the opening credits of The Bill. Not surprisingly, it's strong on the details of police procedure, though weaker on the creation of character. But Oldham does take a couple of risks with his story, not least the creation of the force's most senior woman cop, out of her depth with a real criminal investigation because she's slept her way to the top. Not perhaps a great career move now Lancashire boasts the UK's first woman Chief Constable...
M is for Malice, by Sue
Grafton (Macmillan, £15.99)
Before she became a best-selling crime writer, Sue Grafton scripted a couple of Hollywood TV movie versions of Agatha Christie mysteries. Now she's created a classic Christie-style plot -- a missing will, a missing heir, a small matter of mistaken identity and a definite case of the least likely person. The only thing missing is a body in the library of the warring Malek family's country house. But Grafton's sleuth Kinsey Millhone is no Miss Marple knitting in the corner or Poirot leaving it all to the little grey cells. She's smart, but she also has a heart and if M is for murder, money and malevolence, it's also for the maelstrom of emotions. which the always independent Kinsey has to examine as closely as the evidence. Her former fly-by-night lover is back and she has to decide whether she can afford to risk opening her life to him; the missing Malek brother stirs her blood too, making her wonder if he might be the one; and the half-unravelled knots in her long-buried family ties are starting to tighten in ways that alarm her. As ever, the story is economically told in Kinsey's sharp and distinctive voice, tough but vulnerable, observant and self-critical. It's a style that has engendered a thousand imitators, and none of them even come close to Grafton's grasp of how to tell a story. With her alphabet series, there's always progression from book to book as she experiments with variations on her theme of the lone woman against the world. For my money, M is for marvellous, mesmerizing and magnificent.
Payback, by Thomas Kelly (Orion,
With his first novel, Thomas Kelly has chosen the classic American theme of the battle between honour and disgrace, the conflict that sets brother against brother and creates unlikely allies in the struggle for what seems right. The backdrop to this thriller is the construction boom of the late eighties. The lines are drawn; the bosses determined to pick off the unions; the Irish Mob uneasily trying to hold its place against the Mafia; and two brothers leaving behind the Irish working class ghetto of the Bronx, one through education, the other through enforcement. Kelly himself worked his way through college on a blasting crew building a new water tunnel for New York, and his experience has provided him with a fascinating insight into this alien world which he recreates powerfully. Added to the rich ambience, he tells a strong story that weaves through the complex tapestry of the lives he has imagined. His dialogue is taut and convincing, his characters depressingly credible. With this gripping and often painful debut, Kelly is encroaching on the territory of writers like Pete Dexter, stripping American life of its Hollywood glitter and sentimentality and revealing the real tragedies that lie within the land of the brave and free.
Music, by Michael Connelly (Orion,
Harry Bosch is a maverick cop who epitomises Raymond Chandler's dictum that, 'down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean; who is neither tarnished nor afraid.' That's a tall order in a city like Los Angeles where the police department is tarnished by cases like Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, afraid of bringing more calumny upon its head and meaner than a junkyard dog. In his fifth outing, Bosch returns to homicide duty after an enforced sojourn in the wilderness. The first case he catches looks like a straightforward Mafia hit -- film maker turned money launderer faced with a tax investigation is executed mob-style with two bullets in the head in the trunk of his car. But nothing goes according to expectations in this taut and invigorating thriller. Before he knows it, Bosch is almost swamped by the past, both his own and that of the victim. Trunk Music shows us the angst-ridden Bosch at his most vulnerable, building on his tormented history and taking the reader right with him on his roller-coaster ride of triumph and disaster. With more twists and turns than the Hollywood canyons Connelly takes us through, this is an atmospheric spell-binding page-turner that should finally win its author the acclaim over here that he already enjoys in the US. For a real treat, start with The Black Echo and work your way through the list.
The Memory Game, by Nicci
French (Heinemann, £12.99)
Its publishers claim this first novel is 'a psychological thriller that re-defines its genre,' and in one way, they're right. If you're a fan of Barbara Vine, Minette Walters or Patricia Cornwell, this book is not going to meet your expectations. If, on the other hand, you love Joanna Trollope and Mary Wesley and fancy the idea of overlaying their middle-class Aga sagas with a bit of psychotherapy and an Agatha Christie-style twist in the tail, this could be the one for you. Set in the mid-life crisis land of North London and a big house in idyllic countryside, The Memory Game deals with the dark secret behind the gilded and privileged lives of the Martello and Crane families. Twenty-five years after her disapearance -- written off as a teenage rebellion runaway -- the body of sixteen year old Natalie Martello is discovered only yards from the family home. In a search for the truth about her past, architect Jane Crane is the woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown who gradually peels away the received wisdom to find out what really happened in a process that doesn't so much open out the debate on recovered memory syndrome as grind its own axe. Nicci French is the pseudonym of two London journalists, which means that The Memory Game is well-written and gripping; the interesting and engaging narrator is what makes their technique worth submitting to.
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