Psycho by the Sea Lynne Truss

This is the fourth novel in the constable Twitten series, yes Twitten not Twitter this is 1957. Brighton is very rainy, it’s impossible for Barrow-Boy Cecil to set up his usual stall selling clockwork bunnies, only the best, made in Hong Kong. Most of the lads, rascals and villains alike, are stuck in the cafes and milk bars near the sea front and things are quiet around town. Of course, that’s about to change and it’s worth noting that Inspector Steine’s shooting of gangland boss Terence Chambers, Murder by Milk Bottle, will become relevant, we’ll come back to that. So squeezing humour into a crime novel Isn’t easy, it’s even harder to write a full blown comic novel successfully. Pleasingly, Lynne Truss succeeds in creating her own little world of titter, not Twitter, it’s still 1957. Her love of language and word play shine from the page, and before long Psycho by the Sea lightens the mood.

Sergeant Brunswick wonders where Cecil is, he’s a useful lad, a decent snitch and a couple of bob goes a long way. The best thing is his information always pans out. A tip about a couple of kids pinching from Woolworths for example. Brunswick hasn’t yet joined the dots, he’s failed to notice the jewellery shop robbery that happened ‘coincidentally’ at the very moment the police were cracking down on the pick and mix bandits. Cecil works for Mrs Groyne and the information he passes to Brunswick is designed to send them the police on wild goose chases across the city. The quiet spell is about to end, a crime wave is about to break out. A psychopath has escaped Broadmoor and he’s headed for Brighton, very bad news for the local law, he takes the phrase ‘go boil your head’, he collects them, very seriously. An American researcher has been found dead in the music department of Gosling’s and a notorious local gang member has gone missing. Now to be fair Inspector Steine is a bit preoccupied. Nailing the London underworld supremo, Terence Chambers, has brought him invitations to speak and numerous awards, including the Silver Truncheon from the commissioner of the Met, we all know how important that is. Are the good citizens of Brighton safe?  Maybe, Brunswick and Clever-Clogs Twitten are on the case. An awful lot of fun.

Raven Books, hardback, ISBN 9781526609878, out now.

The Murder Box by Olivia Kiernan

Altogether darker fare now, this fourth Dublin set DCI Frankie Sheehan novel is the best so far and the bar was set pretty high by the first three. The Murder Box has one of my favourite openings of the year so far and it develops into a truly memorable and gripping plot. While she’s in the middle of investigating the kidnapping of a TV celebrity someone sends Frankie a box, inside is a murder mystery game. Frustrated with the progress on the kidnapping case Frankie and her Sergeant/partner Baz join The Murder Box players online. The box contains items of evidence and clues to follow, it all seems like harmless escapism. Then the full macabre nature of the game hits home when a woman comes in to report her flat mate has gone missing. The missing girl and the evidence in the box are soon connected, then there’s a link to the missing TV celebrity too. Now The Murder Box is part of a real murder investigation. So who is toying with Frankie and her team and how far will this go?

Frankie has always been a bit of a loner, a dedicated and resourceful police officer focused on catching criminals. However, she’s come to rely on Baz heavily, they work well together but their relationship is tested in this novel, after all nothing stays the same. It’s very revealing of both characters who continue to develop novel by novel. The Murder Box has the credible feel of a team working a serious crime. A really good police procedural has to have characters you care about and a strong investigation to keep you guessing and this does. Kiernan’s work stands out even in the rich field of Irish crime fiction. In some ways Frankie reminds me of Rebus, if she wasn’t a cop would she know what to do with her life? Fans will be delighted by Frankie’s latest outing and hopefully new converts will get her too.

Riverrun, Quercus, hardback, ISBN 9781529401141, out now

Rabbit Hole by Mark Billingham

Congratulations are due for Mark Billingham who just celebrated twenty years as a published writer. I tip my hat. From his first novel, Sleepyhead, which introduced Tom Thorne, there’s not been a hint of complacency or slacking in his writing. That can’t be said of every veteran with a long running series and a trail of stand alones behind them. Rabbit Hole, Billingham’s latest psychological drama, is set in a mental health ward and it’s a cracker.

Meet Alice, Alice Frances Armitage, thirty-one years old and currently detained under the Mental Health Act. Al is disarming, amiable and chatty, at least with us, she’s more guarded with the other patients, especially after one of them is murdered, after which she offers to help the police solve the case. To us Al opens up about her memory problems, blackouts and the effects of her medication, putting some of her cards are on the table early, though why she’s here comes much later. She introduces us to the patients and staff of the acute psychiatric ward on the day a fight breaks out, ‘a proper scrum’, which is two, no, three days before the first murder. Take Lucy, Posh Lucy, she doesn’t like it be touched and one of her more rational theories is that the world is flat. Al has dubbed Ilias the grandmaster and Robert is, at least in her mind, Big Gay Bob, Lucy is L-plate and Jamilah is the Foot Woman. Then there’s the staff, Debbie, George and Femi among them, they are the ones on duty when it happens, Debbie is the one who find Kevin dead. There’s a lot of running around after that, initially everyone assumes it’s a suicide, except for the murderer of course – Kevin was smothered. When the police team arrives to interview everyone Al let’s them know that she used to be a police officer, even knows their boss, DCI Holloway. She offers to help with the investigation by giving them the low down on everyone and keeping an eye out.

Kevin isn’t the only one to die. Things gradually darken as the story unfolds, the tension mounts and yet Rabbit Hole never loses that comic touch. Al envelops us in the story and makes us feel involved. There are plenty of questions to be asked: is the killer one of the patients or, possibly, a member of staff, and just how reliable is Al? Rabbit Hole is a proper puzzle and it has a poignant and poetic, if not unexpected, ending. Clever and thoroughly entertaining, consummate crime writing.

Little Brown, hardback, ISBN 9781408712436, 24/7/21

 

This Eden by Ed O’Loughlin

The cleverest thing about this thriller is the way it manages to distance us as readers from the story, creating that voyeuristic feeling of spying on the characters and yet it still makes us feel involved in their lives and their plight. We hover over the narrative as if conducting an investigation into events in the aftermath of what happens and yet we are fully engaged with the action, adopting the characters haunted paranoia and fears. This contemporary conspiracy thriller, an exposition on understanding the brave new world of technological advancement that we are all, willingly or unwittingly stepping into; from mass public surveillance to gaming to controlling financial markets. If a government agency wants to know about you, your movements, your life, a trawl of your digital footprints would provide a wealth of information but imagine gathering, not just that, but a person’s past in the same way, that’s where we start with This Eden.

Alice Field and Michael Atarian meet in their first year of college at the Vancouver campus of the university of British Columbia, both skipping a lecture. Within two months they move in together. Alice is smarter than Michael, more political, a coder with a rare talent and a hatred of tech giants. Her worst nightmares are embodied by Campbell Fess, founder and CEO of Inscape Technologies. Alice wants to drop out of college, she has her own ideas for their future, setting up her own company Yoyodime, but to realise that dream she winds up working for Inscape. Michael plods on with his college work, knowing he has to get this degree for any kind of decent job. He can’t afford half the rent so Alice lies to him about the cost so that his contribution is manageable. They have a big row when he finds out a out that and Inscape. He storms out of the house and when he gets back he goes to bed without seeing Alice, thinking they can make up in the morning. Only in the morning the police arrive, Alice’s bicycle has been found on the Lions Gate suspension bridge, she must have jumped, her body washed out to sea.

A few months later Michael is invited to Palo Alto, HQ of Inscape. Eventually he meets Fess, he is offered a job, one he doesn’t understand beyond the fact that it is something to do with liaison and him being a go between. His first task is laid out by the mysterious Aoife, he has a clandestine meeting with a contact in the middle of nowhere. There are strict rules; no one must know about it, no credit card ticket purchases, no car hire, no phones or devices, all off radar. So Michael meets Towse, a government man, though he can’t say which agency. He tells Michael about Omnicent, an online crypto currency, an organisation with some dodgy aims. Michael is going to help expose them. It’s not long before he’s on the run unsure where the truth lies. This Eden is exhilarating and thought provoking. Even if you are not interested in technology this thriller grips and is genuinely scary, especially for technophobes.

Riverrun, hardback, ISBN 9781529412857, out now.

 

The Beresford by Will Carver

The new Will Carver novel is becoming an event to look out for. He left the beaten track a while ago straying into the deep dark forest searching for mushrooms and unearthing truffles. Original is too oft bandied around, I’m probably guilty of that, but Carver is a genuine one off. His writing is genre bending, blackly comic, angry and empathetic. There’s the feel of a writer, fecund and freewheeling, exploring the ‘whys?’ behind human behaviour and taking us on his journey of discovery too. Where we’re going I don’t know, I’m not sure Carver does either, but this is a fun ride not to be missed.

So welcome to The Beresford and the sad demise of Jordan Irving, screenwriter, director philanthropist, only twenty-seven year old. Not exactly living a Janis Joplin/Jim Morrison lifestyle but he did have mental health issues, and that’s enough for people to assume that his desperation led to suicide. The Beresford has an unsavoury history but it’s not my job to tell you about that.

Abe Schwartz is a nice guy, a bit geeky, the kind of man the parents wants their daughter to bring home to tea, not for her, of course, but for their own peace of mind. Abe lives at The Beresford, Mrs May’s surprisingly cheap boarding house and one day when the doorbell rings he takes it upon himself to welcome the latest resident, Blair Conroy. The only problem is that he has to hide the body of the man he just killed before opening the door. Later he can worry about getting rid of said body; ten easy to follow steps, nothing can’t be found on the internet. Blair has never been away from home, from the stifling but loving bosom of her family – religious, conservative and boring. Blair wants to taste life. Her first impressions of The Beresford are that it is clean and spacious and Mrs May seems nice and Abe seems harmless. Abe and Blair will become very close but a happy ending seems unlikely. Although Abe gets over the death of Aidan Gallagher pretty quickly and discovers that he can cut up a body fairly efficiently it all begs the question – what’s next?

Wackily entertaining, wicked and naughty but not short on insight into the human animal, a strange, dangerous and contrary beast!

Orenda Books, paperback, ISBN 9781913193812, out now

 

The Dictator’s Muse by Nigel Farndale

This is a literary historical biographical fiction but The Directors Muse also has elements of the spy story and thriller about it and is certainly as gripping any title in this strong round-up. After all the backdrop is the greatest crime of the twentieth century – Nazism. You may remember Farndale’s The Blasphemer, a haunting elegantly written novel that gripped form the first page and I would say the same about The Dictator’s Muse. A journalist is looking into the life of the infamous film maker Leni Riefenstahl. She arrives at her former home shortly after Riefenstahl’s death to catalogue film excerpts and unseen footage in the hope that it will reveal more about the woman who became Hitler’s favourite auteur. Riefenstahl was the director of Triumph Of The Will on the Nuremberg rally, which won a Gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris, and Olympia covering the 1936 Olympic Games. Both considered iconic masterpieces of cinema history.

In the winter of 2005 Sigrun Meier travels to Lake Starnberg in Bavaria. Riefenstahl’s representative, Herr Becker, is waiting for her, he gives her access to the house and to the rare film footage in the director’s private collection but nothing is to be taken from the property. Much of Leni Riefenstahl’s life is still an enigma, she never admitted she was wrong to work for Goebbels and the Nazis, she may have secretly married and had a bother who died in Russia during the war. The tragedy of her work is that Riefenstahl made Hitler into a ‘Wagnerian hero’. There are rumours of a clip showing a handshake between Hitler and the black American athlete and quadruple gold medal winner Jessie Owens, that would be quite a find. It’s commonly held that Hitler left the stadium when Owens made a mockery of any theory of Aryan superiority with his athletic prowess. Sigrun does find footage of Owens, though not a handshake with the Fuhrer. It becomes clear to Sigrun that Riefenstahl Is fascinated by one of the athletes in the background, an Englishman and she pockets the film to find out more later.

1933, London. Kim Newlands is training at White City, he’s a serious medal prospect for the Olympics in three years time but, unlike many in the team, he’s not a rich man and needs sponsorship to carrying on with his dreams. His girlfriend, Connie, offers to help, she knows Sir Oswald [Mosley] leader of the British Union of Fascists. She drags Kim to a meeting one day and even suggests they join, Connie’s theory is that everyone is either a fascist or a communist these days. Kim has no time for this suggestion, he doesn’t understand the hatred of Jews for a start. Alun Pryce from Rhondda in South Wales is a communist, he got a scholarship to Cardiff University and works in the political bookshop in London. The Labour party isn’t radical enough so he joins the communists.

In Berlin Riefenstahl is meeting Goebbels, the Nazis want her to direct a film for them. Goebbels is also keen to add her to his list of conquests, unwillingly if necessary. She is wily enough to avoid being raped in his office. Later as she becomes the Fuhrer’s favourite, Goebbels will show her more respect. They will share a vision of making Nazism appear heroic and convincing the world that the Fuhrer is a demigod. Back in Britain over the next three years the tension builds between the communists and fascists, there are frequent clashes. At one rally both Alun and Connie are injured and taken to hospital together. An unlikely friendship forms between Alun, Connie and Kim. Kim increasingly bitter at what happened to Connie and not obtaining funding turns to Mosley, he will represent Britain at the Olympics in 1936 but also the British fascist movement. There he will meet Leni Riefenstahl as she choreographs the Olympics on film. Alun is still a communist but isn’t just them who want Alun to keep an eye on Kim, the Secret Intelligence Service are keen to keep a watch too.

Farndale interweaves history and fiction in a heady mix. Insightful of the rise of Nazism, the political shifts in Britain and his characters, particularly Riefenstahl, are credible. This is an exposé of one of the most crucial periods of the twentieth century. Engrossing, intriguing and thought provoking.

Doubleday, hardback, ISBN 9780857527172, out now.

 

The Hunt and the Kill by Holly Watt

The third Casey Benedict, investigative reporter, novel is a fine alchemical mix of great storytelling, strong characters and zeitgeisty themes. Holly Watt has mastered the leap from journalism to fiction, although it feels like reporters have a head start they often don’t adapt fully. The Hunt and the Kill is a superior adventure, gritty and grounded, with bags of atmosphere and plenty to think about.

Casey is still a reporter at The Post. She and, experienced colleague, Miranda, have become a very effective team and they’ve broken big stories across the world. They’ve also become good friends. But times are changing at The Post, the newsroom is split into shifts and the reporters are covering stories outside their usual remit. Head of news, Dash, puts Casey onto health stories, something she freely admits knowing very little about, but for now she just has to suck up her frustration. She is sent to the Royal Brompton to interview a young woman, Flora Ashcroft, suffering from cystic fibrosis. Casey crams on the subject on the way to the hospital but it doesn’t take long for Flora to realise that Casey isn’t an expert on her condition. Patiently she explains why she is in hospital, CF is a life limiting condition, it leaves her vulnerable to infections and the treatment usually involves a course of antibiotics. Flora’s doctor, Noah Hart, explains about antibiotics and the troubling resistance that people have built up to them. It’s a treatment that will become increasingly ineffective without new antibiotics. Resulting in a massive increase in deaths across the planet estimated by 2050 to be an extra 10 million dead each year. Adsero are producing a new antibiotic but it’s simply not enough. Then Casey gets a call diverting her to Cardiff for the birth of Siamese twins. As she’s leaving the hospital Hart catches up with Casey. He explains that Flora is dying, she may not know herself how serious her condition is, but a life saving lung transplant is out the question given the infection could re-infect the new healthy organs. Hart hints at a more powerful drug being developed but the work has stopped, he seems shifty and afraid, eventually Hart runs off. Casey senses something is going on and she wants to follow up but orders are orders and Cardiff comes first. So it’s a few days later that she manages to contact professor Brennan at the Colindale National Institute for Health Protection to talk about antibiotics. When they meet he explains about resistance to existing drugs and appears to want to talk about future developments when a phone call changes his attitude. He clams up and asks Casey to leave, offering no explanation. That afternoon Casey arranges to meet her boyfriend Ed on Parliament Hill, there’s no sign of him but she is suddenly attacked, she manages to escape but by the time she gets home events have taken a tragic turn. More determined than ever Casey looks into pharmaceutical company Pergamex and the drug Corax. If there really is an effective new antibiotic available why is it not coming to market? And, how can a new antibiotic be responsible for murder?

Intelligent, pacy and ripped from the news.

Raven Books, hardback ISBN 9781526625588, out now

 

Red Traitor by Owen Matthews

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of those moments in history where the world came to the brink of nuclear war, not the only one, but perhaps the most famous. While people remember the political atmosphere of the time, or can read about the Kennedy Whitehouse/Khrushchev Kremlin confrontation, the behind the scenes story is far less familiar. People knew about the Russian plan to place intermediate range missiles on Cuba in response to US missiles in Italy and Turkey, but off stage a world of spying and military manoeuvring was going on.  Matthews blend of fact and fiction superbly manages to convey some to the tension and paranoia of the times.

Severomorsk naval base, home to the USSR Northern Fleet, July, 1962. Captain Arkhipov, survivor of the K-19 disaster is awaiting a command, fearful of another nuclear submarine commission. In Moscow Colonel Oleg Morokov leaves his home to make a phone call from a call box. He asks for Daria Vladimorovna and when he is told he’s got a wrong number he hangs up. Lieutenant Colonel Vasin, who made his name as a spy catcher, listens in on Morozov from the Lubyanka, he now believes they have enough on Morozov to arrest him. KGB General Orlov wants to wait, he wants the man behind Morozov, there always has to be a puppet master, a higher traitor, there is always a conspiracy to chase down. It’s political, Orlov wants General Serov of the GRU to be Morozov’s protector. A plan is hatched to catch him, Spanish born Sofia will spring the trap. Meanwhile, Arkhipov goes to sea again in a submarine with tactical nuclear warheads, heading straight for the US blockade of Cuba. KGB officer Vadim Kuznetsov monitors the situation in the US from the Sagua la Grande Airbase on the island. A spy in Moscow, missiles in Cuba, all connected to top secret operation Anadyr.

Matthews draws on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the story of Oleg Penkovsky for this engrossing and intriguing thriller.

Bantam Press, hardback, ISBN 9781787634961, 29/7/21

Reviews by Paul Burke