Brit-Noir: Two inventive and original contemporary crime novels

The Heights by Parker Bilal

the heights

The first novel in this series, The Divinities, was one of the best police procedurals of last year – original, fast and hard. But now we’re into private eye territory; things have moved at such a pace between that novel and this follow up that disillusioned detective inspector Cal Drake has left the Met. Scapegoated for an inquiry that went south he eventually resigned. Fortunately he has still has Ray Crane on side, he and the forensic psychologist have formed a new private detective agency.

This contemporary London set crime thriller is driven by the same energy as the first book and the same darkly cynical tones and wry humour are alive and well. Crane and Drake make a great pairing, they still spark off each other even though they’ve developed a mutual respect from an initially dislike. Bilal has given their relationship very familiar traits, woman/man, doctor/cop, but then subverted the tropes – Crane and Drake have very distinctive back stories and personalities. When Crane and Drake met they were mistrustful and hostile, mutual appreciation was slow to develop, they actually investigated each other – know your enemy. Now they recognise each others strengths; Crane is bright and analytical whereas Drake is instinctive, but they both have the ability to surprise.

As he liked to go his own way Drake was a problem for management at the Met but his colleagues liked him, something he’s going to need in The Heights. Even though Crane and Drake are now independent he becomes embroiled in an old case. Drake strife with ex-boss DCI Pryce adds spice to this story.

Drake’s default mode is to give new clients the third degree as if they were suspects. No one wants that when they come in the door so it’s just as well Crane tempers his style. Today’s client makes it difficult. Marco Foulks, 50ish, hasn’t endeared himself to either, he’s annoyed Crane by playing on old family ties, something she conceals well, and Drake simply doesn’t like him, that shows. The man reports the disappearance of his young girlfriend, Kuwaiti LSE student Howeida Almanara. She’s been gone five months and he thinks she could be in danger. He implies that the family don’t approve of her London lifestyle. Eventually Drake’s questioning offends Foulks and he walks out. Crane gently chides Drake, a paying client would be good, still she thinks Foulks will be back.

Ruby Brown hates the smelly sticky tube. The journey from Tyler’s school in Finsbury Park to her home in Morden seems interminable. Tyler won’t behave and she has the baby with her too. Their dad Marvin lost his job so she’s back with the parents temporarily, honestly the break from him is welcome. If only Tyler would sit still, she shouts at him and receives disapproving looks from the other passengers, they reach Clapham Common. Tyler tugs the strap on an IKEA carrier and the bag falls to the floor with a thump, a poorly wrapped cloth and newspaper parcel rolls out. People start screaming, it’s a severed head, it rests at Ruby’s feet.

Drake’s former colleagues DS Kelly Marsh and DC Milo Kowalski are at Clapham Common station. The head appears to be a that of a woman with dyed blonde, no ID. The station manager is trying to hurry things along as they are trying it do their job properly, pressure will come from above before long. Then DCI Pryce turns up but he takes one look at the complex case and he decides Kelly can handle it. That’s when Milo reads the headline on the paper the head was wrapped in…

Meanwhile, Crane and Drake are at the LSE interviewing Howeida ‘Howie’ Almanara’s friends. The girls are a bit wary but it’s clear they didn’t much like Marco Foulks. That confirms it for Drake he’s starting the investigation with the client.

Drake is about to get caught up in the investigation into the head without the body. His connection to the victim, Zelda, puts him in the spotlight, the torso washed up in Brighton four years before. Her death was the very reason Pryce attacked Drake’s handling of the case back then. Crane has to take on the ‘Howie’ case as Drake looks into Zelda’s murder. There are surprises here and the motives are not what you might think. The Heights is a complex and satisfying mystery involving finance, gangland, trafficking and prostitution. A layered, no nonsense thriller that is intriguing and exciting.

Bilal is also the author of the Makana investigations set in Turkey. Parker Bilal is the pen name of literary author Jamal Majhoub. If you are looking for an intelligent entertaining historical novel I would recommend The Carrier (1998).

Blackthorn, Canongate, paperback, ISBN 9781838850807, 3/9/20

The Library Murders by MR Mackenzie

the library murders

The whole thing took just eighteen seconds but the effects will be lasting.

This novel took me by surprise a little, of course it was meant to, The Library Murders is such a cosy crime title but this is anything but that. Although Mackenzie does have a lot of fun playing with the tropes of sub-genres. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this novel is its ability to surprise, it never seems to go where you might expect. It can also be dark and moody or funny by turns.

Sixty-three minutes before the events at Thornhill Library. Alyssa Clark wakes on someone else’s couch with the hangover from hell, she climbs over her friend to get to the bathroom, slurping water form the tap and hastily dressing. A bus home and back to bed, a good sleep before she starts her new job on Monday. Then it dawns; today is Monday and work is supposed to start in half an hour. She bolts out the door, just misses the first bus, grabs an energy drink in the local shop and calms herself, there’s just enough time – she makes it. She’s greeted at Thornhill Library by a banner that says ‘Glasgow Loves Reading’ (smiley family in the background). Inside a group of staff appear to be plotting industrial unrest – management can’t get away with this, (the details of library life appear acutely real, gently mocking, fond – Mackenzie worked in a library). Alyssa approaches but they all seem surprised to see her. No one was expecting a new trainee and the manager is on holiday. Davy gives her the grand tour, except for the Scottish Survivalist Society room, best steer clear of that. When they return to the desk Jason is still complaining about management and Eva is on the phone to head office. The creepy guy who’s pass was supposed to be withdrawn is back in the internet cafe looking at porn again. Other people mill around, it’s a usual Monday. That’s when the man clad in black wearing a ski-mask points a gun in Jason’s face. It takes:

EIGHTEEN SECONDS

DCI Claire Metcalfe is late for her meeting with the Chief-Super at Strathkelvin, a black mark. Then the news comes through on the radio; reports of multiple shots fired at Thornhill Public Library, Armed Response is on the way. She reports in and heads for the scene, yelling at people milling around to get back, her efforts are in vain. A woman with tattoos, bleeding from a head wound, is being stretchered out of the building. The shooter has long gone. Claire organises the investigation before officially being given the case later in the day. The demand is for a quick result, there’s a lot of pressure on, not least political. This could be good for the career though. The inquiry drags, life appears to return to normal, the survivors bear the scars. Eventually a suspect emerges but is it the right guy? Alyssa’s colleague, another survivor, Davy, doesn’t think so The pair mount their own investigation. Then something apparently unconnected occurs; another murder, a totally different MO, no one has any reason to connect the two crimes but…

A novel that takes unexpected turns and constantly changes form is always welcome. Characters don’t conform to any rules you might recognise and some subtle serious points are made but this is mostly deliciously dark fun. The motive will sock you in the teeth. Mackenzie has come up with something that defies easy definition and is truly original.

By way of bonus there’s a free short from the murders POV with the book and another free short story if you subscribe to MR Mackenzie site. Just in case you need a sweetener.

Mad House, paperback, ISBN 9781916094819, 14/8/20

Reviewed by Paul Burke