Each of these novels is exceptional in one way or another; storytelling, plot, style, insight into society, heart-stopping action, setting, psychological depth. . . you get it. Click on a title to read my full review, but I’ve added a brief comment to highlight what I think is so special about each novel and the blurb, which, of course, gives a flavour of the story.
Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler (No Exit Press)
Blurb: Autumn 1915. The First World War is raging across Europe. Woodrow Wilson has kept Americans out of the trenches, although that hasn’t stopped young men and women from crossing the Atlantic to volunteer at the front. Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, a Chicago reporter and undercover agent for the US government is in Paris when he meets an enigmatic nurse called Louise. Officially in the city for a story about American ambulance drivers, Cobb is grateful for the opportunity to get to know her but soon his intelligence handler, James Polk Trask, extends his mission. Parisians are meeting ‘death by dynamite’ in a new campaign of bombings, and the German-speaking Kit seems just the man to discover who is behind this – possibly a German operative who has infiltrated with the waves of refugees? And so begins a pursuit that will test Kit Cobb, in all his roles, to the very limits of his principles, wits and talents for survival.
Fleetly plotted and engaging with political and cultural issues that resonate deeply today, Paris in the Dark is a page-turning novel of unmistakable literary quality.
Comment: A stylish, well-crafted, historical spy story with modern references that really resonate.
White Hot Silence by Henry Porter (Quercus)
Blurb: Aid worker Anastasia Christakos is driving through Calabria to visit one of the new refugee centres funded by her husband, billionaire Denis Hisami, when she slows down to greet two African migrants she recognises. Too late she realises it is an ambush.
She manages a desperate phone call to Hisami before her Mafia kidnappers drug her. Hours later she wakes up on a container ship, powering eastwards across the Mediterranean.
Anastasia has been abducted and held hostage because Hisami has explosive information that his enemies have killed for and will kill for again. But Hisami’s time as a commander with the Kurdish Peshmerga has caught up with him, and the US authorities have jailed him for possible past terrorist activities. For all his wealth, he is powerless to save his wife.
Only one man can help him. Paul Samson, former MI6 agent and a genius at tracking missing persons. He’s the obvious choice. There’s only one snag. Samson was, and probably still is, in love with Anastasia. If he manages to locate and save her, will it be for Hisami – or himself?
Comment: A world thriller, a love story, a powerful challenge to the glib and ill thought out response to the refugee crisis.
Joe Country by Mick Herron (Hodder & Stoughton)
Blurb: Like the ringing of a dead man’s phone, or an unwelcome guest at a funeral . . .
In Slough House memories are stirring, all of them bad. Catherine Standish is buying booze again, Louisa Guy is raking over the ashes of lost love, and new recruit Lech Wicinski, whose sins make him outcast even among the slow horses, is determined to discover who destroyed his career, even if he tears his life apart in the process.
And with winter taking its grip Jackson Lamb would sooner be left brooding in peace, but even he can’t ignore the dried blood on his carpets. So when the man responsible breaks cover at last, Lamb sends the slow horses out to even the score.
This time, they’re heading into joe country.
And they’re not all coming home.
Comment: A blackly comic masterpiece that skewers the modern Britain and richly entertains, to be savoured like fine wine.
Breakers by Doug Johnstone (Orenda)
Blurb: A toxic family … a fight for survival…
Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum.
On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.
With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation … unless he drags her down too.
Comment: A witty and poignant exposé of broken Britain, heartrending, eloquent and provocative.
The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland (Faber & Faber)
Blurb: The year is 1949.
In the bombed-out ruins of Cologne, Hanno Dasch is king.
Director of the most successful black market operation in post-war Germany, Dasch has kept his clients supplied with goods so extravagant and rare that they were almost impossible to find even at the height of Germany’s conquests.
Nobody but Dasch, his enigmatic daughter and the war criminal he keeps as his bodyguard know how he does it.
None of this has escaped the attention of Allied Intelligence, who face not only the systemic corruption of a country where everything is in short supply, but the growing threat of Stalin’s KGB.
Fearing that Dasch will soon expand his business to include dealings with Russia, and invite the further meddling of Russian agents in the west, the CIA sets in motion an undercover operation to infiltrate and, ultimately, destroy Dasch’s empire.
A disgraced American Army officer, Nathan Carter, is recruited to approach Dasch and to ingratiate himself with promises of stolen army supplies.
As Carter moves further and further into the labyrinth of Dasch’s world, it soon becomes clear that the black market ring has already been compromised, but by someone even more dangerous than the Russians.
Carter stumbles upon a counterfeiting ring, with whom Dasch has unwittingly gone into business, which seems to have been created with the sole purpose of destroying the Soviet economy, something it could easily do with the superlative quality of the forged bills it is producing. With Carter caught in the middle, and facing the danger that his cover might be blown at any moment, a race begins between the Russian and American spy agencies to uncover who is responsible, before the situation escalates to war.
Comment: There’s a faultless Cold War setting and a beautiful exploration of character; white lies, black lies, elegant lies and their consequences feature in this complex spy story.
November Road by Lou Berney (Harper Collins)
Blurb: Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out…
A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead. Suspecting he’s next, Guidry hits the road to Las Vegas. When he spots a beautiful housewife and her two young daughters stranded on the side of the road, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit men on his trail.
The two strangers share the open road west – and find each other on the way. But Guidry’s relentless hunters are closing in on him, and now he doesn’t want to just survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time.
Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. And it might get them both killed.
Comment: A richly textured New Orleans set conspiracy thriller that conjures up the spirit of noir, a fresh take on the Kennedy assassination.
No Place of Refuge by Ausma Zehanat Khan (No Exit Press)
Blurb: Amid a global crisis, one woman searches for justice…
The Syrian refugee crisis just became personal for Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty.
NGO worker Audrey Clare, sister of Khattak’s childhood friend, is missing.
In her wake, a French Interpol Agent and a young Syrian man are found dead at the Greek refugee camp where she worked.
Khattak and Getty travel to Greece to trace Audrey’s last movements in a desperate attempt to find her. In doing so, they learn that her work in Greece had strayed well beyond the remit of her NGO…
Had Audrey been on the edge of exposing a dangerous secret at the heart of the refugee crisis – one that ultimately put a target on her own back.
Comment: A novel that tackles important contemporary issues with real heart and bite, a fiercely intelligent police procedural.
Kossuth Square by Adam Lebor (Head of Zeus)
Blurb: When Detective Balthazar Kovacs is called out before dawn to a brothel owned by his brother, he knows it can only be bad news.
A customer has died in the brothel’s VIP room. Worse still, he’s an Arab financier, a guest of government, connected to a massive investment programme that could transform Hungary. It looks like a heart attack – but why has the brothel’s CCTV footage been erased?
Kovacs knows only too well the treacherous undercurrents that permeate life in Hungary’s capital – the deadly intersection between the criminal underworld, the corridors of power and the ghosts of history. He knows that his investigation is more than likely to lead back to the seat of power, the Országház, in Kossuth Square… but he does not expect to be swept into his own family’s dark past too.
Comment: A layered story of corruption and conspiracy that demonstrates just how interconnected our small world is. Lebor really gets under the skin of his story.
Black Souls by Gioacchino Craico (Soho Crime)
Blurb: The modern Italian classic about Calabrian organized crime–now an award-winning motion picture–makes its English-language debut.
In the remote Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, Italy, three best friends embark on a life of crime in order to raise themselves up out of the poverty of their childhoods. Brainy Luciano, the behind-the-scenes schemer, was orphaned as a little boy when the local mob boss had his postman father executed. Lazy, jovial Luigi has learned that there’s no point in following the rules. And completing the triumvirate is the nameless narrator, from whose black soul comes the inspiration and energy for each new criminal project, from kidnapping to armed robbery to heroin dealing to contract killing.
Set in the birthplace of the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s ruthless and ubiquitous mafia, Black Souls draws on centuries of brigand lore, peasant rebellion history, mountain mythology, and colonial suffering to offer a gripping morality tale about how violence begets violence.
Comment: This powerfully emotive novel feels like it’s being told by a genuine mafioso, it reads like a memoir.
The Cabin by Jørn Lier Horst (Penguin)
15 years ago, Simon Meier walked out of his house and was never seen again.
With no leads, the case quickly ran cold. Until now.
Because one day ago, politician Bernard Clausen died. And in his cabin on the Norwegian coast, police make a shocking discovery.
Boxes of bank notes, worth millions of dollars. Collecting dust.
Chief Inspector William Wisting thinks it could link to Meier’s disappearance.
But solving both cases will mean working with an old adversary, and delving into a dark underworld – which leads closer to home than he could have imagined . . .
Comment: One of the finest novels in one of the best police procedural series out there and a more than decent slice of scandi-noir too.
Playboy by Joe Thomas (Arcadia)
SÃO PAULO, 20 MARCH 2016
A campaign for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff is in full swing, yet 100,000 people take to Avenida Paulista in São Paulo in her support.
On the same day, a young man from a wealthy family is murdered.
Detective Mario Leme discovers the body. Two Military Policemen confront him. They strong-arm him into the back of an SUV.
Set against the backdrop of the biggest political corruption scandal in Brazilian history, Playboy is the story of Leme’s attempt to clear his name, and find the young man’s killer. Leme’s investigation runs right through São Paulo society, from the bottom, to the very top and has implications far beyond. And the fight to prove his innocence might just cost Leme his life.
A stylish, taut, and atmospheric novel in the hardboiled tradition of American noir, Playboy is a thrilling examination of the seething, violent street life of São Paulo and the political convulsions of contemporary Brazil.
Comment: A thriller that opens a window on the underbelly of Brazilian society, taut prose, stylish storytelling, more than a bit chilling.
The Bear Pit by SG MacLean (Quercus)
London, 1656: Captain Seeker is back in the city, on the trail of an assassin preparing to strike at the heart of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic
The Commonwealth is balanced on a knife edge. Royalists and disillusioned former Parliamentarians have united against Oliver Cromwell, now a king in all but name. Three conspirators, representing these factions, plan to assassinate the Lord Protector, paving the way back to the throne for Charles Stuart once and for all.
Captain Damian Seeker, meanwhile, is preoccupied by the horrifying discovery in an illegal gambling den of the body of a man ravaged by what is unmistakably a bear. Yet the bears used for baiting were all shot when the sport was banned by Cromwell. So where did this fearsome creature come from, and why would someone use it for murder?
With Royalist-turned-Commonwealth-spy Thomas Faithly tracking the bear, Seeker investigates its victim. The trail leads from Kent’s coffee house on Cornhill, to a German clockmaker in Clerkenwell, to the stews of Southwark, to the desolate Lambeth Marshes where no one should venture at night.
When the two threads of the investigation begin to join, Seeker realises just what – and who – he is up against. The Royalists in exile have sent to London their finest mind and greatest fighter, a man who will stop at nothing to ensure the Restoration. Has Seeker finally met his match?
Comment: Superb historical crime fiction that transports the reader back to Cromwell’s England.