The Great Big September Crime Fiction Round-Up
A blockbuster feature for crime fiction lovers this month. There’s are so many tasty dishes on offer right now catering for every taste – tuck in.
The Wrong Goodbye by Toshiko Yahagi
A Japanese detective tale that owes a lot to the American PI genre, Yahagi loves Chandler, but this has a distinct local flavour. The Wrong Goodbye is a deeply Intriguing tale and is a welcome addition to the hardboiled canon. Early in the narrative a desperately hungry detective Futamura is drawn into a grubby city lane by a neon sign promising ‘We Never Close’, and that’s when he lands in hot water. The image is so reminiscent of classic film noir and the link to the golden age of hardboiled writing never waivers. But this is much more than an homage to the American greats. This is contemporary storytelling, clever and double edged, both sardonic and richly entertaining, highly recommended.
Detective Eiji Futamura of the Kanagawa Prefecture is pulled off a thirty hour stakeout at 2am. He’s dog tired but hungry, so heads to the Yokosuka district, near the US naval base, for food. As he enters a lane he disturbs a drunken US flyer slumped over some boxes. Billy Bonney has a key to the 24hr burger joint, he feeds Futamura who in return drops the flyer off at his hotel. When the body of an unidentified male washes up on a breakwater it’s dismissively declared an accidental death but the press get hold of it and a full investigation is launched. Futamura learns the man is Chen, the owner of the burger bar where he ate. That leads back to Billy but Futamura doesn’t arrest him and suspicion falls back on him when a second body turns up. The suspended detective takes a private case but, of course, the original case haunts him.
Steeped in hardboiled tropes with a knowing edge, The Wrong Goodbye, is elegantly plotted story. The novel’s undercurrent of corruption and double dealing and is an indictment of US foreign policy throughout the occupation of Japan and it’s fateful involvement in Vietnam. An easy read that has real bite, enjoyable and memorable. Translated by Alfred Birnbaum.
MacLehose Press, hardback, ISBN 9781529407884, out now.
Personal read 5* group 4*
Invite Me In by Emma Curtis
The latest psychological thriller from Emma Curtis. It’s a slow burn but the tension just keeps building as little disturbing things happen, insignificant in themselves but indicative of trouble ahead. Eventually long held secrets are exposed with devastating consequences.
Eliza Curran is decorating the flat she and husband Martin are planning to renting out. She has to get home to make Martin’s lunch when there’s a knock at the door. Dan Jones has come about the flat. He and Eliza chat but Martin has final say and he’s against it. Then Dan stops a thief robbing his sister Ali and it sways Martin. Dan moves in and starts dating Eliza and Martin’s au pair Isabel but Eliza is drawn to Dan. As the details of her relationship with Martin emerges the story becomes more sinister. Eliza has a secrets she’s not proud of but she’s not the only one, trouble is brewing.
This is an intriguing domestic noir, there are plenty of credible twists, and the character relationships have potency. Eliza is a strong character and Curtis will keep you guessing with this one.
Black Swan Penguin, paperback, ISBN 9781784165260, 2/9/21
Personal 3½* group 4*
Evaders by EC Scullion
The second instalment of the Tom Holt trilogy from EC Scullion is a pacy edge of the seat action adventure. Although it’s not necessary to enjoying this reading the opener in the series Intruders is recommended. This is a novel you can lose yourself in just savouring the thrills and spills. A gritty, well plotted, globe trotting adventure.
Detective Chief Inspector Neil Rawlins has a late night visitor, a go between for shadowy Mr Capricorn who pays the policeman for information. Anton wants the packagemRawlins got after a call from South America a couple of days earlier. Supposedly containing new evidence on Clare Buchanan’s disappearance. Clare was a whistle blower suggesting massive fraud by Capricorn. Rawlins got the package at his house rather than Metropolitan Police HQ where it could be intercepted. The sender Tom Holt also suggested looking into Sabina Cordero, Capricorn’s ex, now living in a compound in Uruguay. Anton says he’ll deal with Holt, Rawlins can forget everything. Nearly a month later Holt is on the run, his friend, Anil Choudhary, is dead and Anton is on his tail, Capricorn wants him dead. Holt can’t understand what happened after he sent the info to DCI Rawlins. However, Holt also sent the package to Diane Cambridge at Insight News International. Again no headlines, no action, no one on to Mr Capricorn, until Nashaly Akinyemi flies to Uruguay to start verifying Holt’s new claims.
The action starts hot and heavy and stays that way. The strands pull together nicely, it’s an intense read with strong female characters. A lot of fun.
RedDoor, paperback, ISBN 9781913062736, out now
Personal/group read 4*
Deep Cover Leigh Russell
Firmly in British police procedural territory with the latest Geraldine Steel mystery from Leigh Russell. While other writers struggle with one book a year Leigh manages at least two and yet the quality is consistent. Fans of Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson will know that they went through a tough time in the last novel, Evil Impulse. In order to protect Geraldine’s twin sister, Helena, her only living relative, Ian had to get her put into witness protection, effectively separating them permanently. He did it behind Geraldine’s back and she’s not in a forgiving mood so their relationship hangs in the balance. In order to put things right Ian tries to get Helena’s dealer to drop any ideas of revenge. To do that he has to take an undercover job back in London with the drugs squad while Geraldine stays in York. His new boss Jack wants him to infiltrate a gang and get close to the boss Tod Lancaster. Ian humiliates Lancaster’s bodyguard to get his job, but the buy in price includes killing the man he deposed.
Meanwhile the team in York are soon dealing with the murder of a sex worker. Luscious has a spot by the old brewery. Thomas is a regular, every time his wife is away from home. This night he decides to pay double to take Luscious to his home for a few hours. Thomas kills her when a row breaks out, it’s an accident but he’s not going to pay for it. He hides the body and cleans up thinking it’s over. In his head he runs the gamut from it’s not my fault, to fear and finally anger at Luscious for causing this. He’s starting to relax back into family life when a note arrives: ‘I saw what you did’.
DCI Eileen Duncan is in charge of the investigation, a new DS Matthew Bailey has been brought in to cover for Ian. Luscious is not missed but Geraldine knows she deserves justice. Ian is soon in trouble, his mission could actually make things worse for Helena, himself and Geraldine. Meanwhile another body turns up in York.
Another solid procedural that has tension and real threat. Geraldine has become a firm favourite and Russell is still well in the groove.
No exit press paperback, ISBN 9780857304643, out now
Personal/group read 4*
Blackout by Simon Scarrow
Simon Scarrow is famous for his Roman series but reveals his deep interest in the twentieth century in this Berlin set WWII mystery. An honest cop, Kripo inspector Schenke, has avoided joining the ranks of the SS or the Nazi party so far but the pressure is growing. He keeps his head down and get on with the job of catching criminals but things have changed, subordinates are protected by the Party, and politics are harder to avoid. He’d join up to the army if it weren’t for an old injury.
Ex-film star Gerda Korzeny has a row with her married lover Dorner at a swanky party, it’s witnessed by other actors, sports stars and even high ranking party members. When she leaves, Dorner follows but they row again and she heads off to the station on her own. Afraid of the darkness she’s glad to make it the waiting room and eventually catch her train. Then someone she recognises joins her in her carriage.
When Gerda turns up dead on the tracks next morning, an apparent sexual assault but not robbery, Schenke is called in by the Gestapo to investigate, primarily because he’s expendable. Oberführer Müller of the Reich’s Main Security Office, Gestapo Müller, wants Schenke to find the killer. The case is sensitive given the people involved. The whole thing mixes Schenke up in the rivalry between admiral Canaris, the uncle of his girlfriend Karin, and Himmler’s deputy Heydrich.
The mystery plays on the cop between a rock and hard place superbly. Does Schenke have the guile to survive and the nous to catch a dangerous killer but still please his masters? Easy to read, evenly paced and with a couple of interesting twists. Future Schenke investigations promise much. Scarrow sets the scene brilliantly and this is highly entertaining.
Headline, paperback, ISBN 9781472258564, out now.
Personal read 3½* group read 4*
The Late Train to Gipsy Hill by Alan Johnson
Many a politician has turned a hand to fiction writing, mostly falling flat but ticking a box on their cv. Former Home Secretary, union leader, postman and Memoirist Alan Johnson now adds crime writer to his extensive list of achievements and says it’s different for him. Unlike a lot of politicians come writer Johnson is not a dilettante, this is a career move. Pleasingly, he doesn’t load the narrative with the tedious insider details and self importance, a lot of politicians do. His debut The Late Train to Gipsy Hill is a political thriller come love story that has a cosy crime feel unusual to the genre. Johnson can write, that’s a step in the right direction and while this is a little tame for me it’s a solid beach read.
Gary is bored with London life, it’s not what he was expecting when he left Aylesbury for the bright lights. He shares a house with three others and has a dull job. Perhaps things would be better if he had a girlfriend. There is this one girl on the train, he watches her make up routine in the mornings, but has never had the courage to go over and chat to her.
She is a Ukrainian waitress at the Strand Hotel in Pimlico. She’s serving some important Russian guests at a secret meeting where someone has planned a murder. Due to a mix up the coffees get switched, the wrong man is poisoned, but that won’t be known for a few days. Then the Russians will assume she is in on it and come hunting. This is 2015, the trouble in Crimea has just flared up. When she realises she is being followed the girl on the train appeals to Gary for help. The pair narrowly escape but now they are on the run.
The Russian FSB clash with their gangster friends in London, the Kronyye Bratta, the Ukrainians and British police are drawn in. There’s a touch of humour and this is an enjoyable read, Johnson’s passion for writing comes across. The story riffs on the Litvinenko poisoning but avoids some obvious plot turns from that catalyst. Johnson is working on a second thirller featuring his female detective lead Louise Mangan. That will involve a missing government minister in Greece.
Wildfire, hardback, ISBN 9781472286123, out now
Personal read 3* group 3½*
Find You First Linwood Barclay
Twenty years in the business doesn’t necessarily make you a better writer, but retaining the passion helps. It was refreshing to see the enthusiasm of Linwood Barclay and Stephen King for their art when they chatted at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival recently. This novel is a cracker and I’m not entirely sure why there aren’t more Linwood Barclay movies/TV series out there, his books are perfect for adaptation. None more so than Find You First; a pacy, clever thriller that will keep you turning the pages as it moves seamlessly from one exciting moment to the next. Each chapter leaves you with questions that drive you on for answers to the mystery. And we are faced with moral issues that draw up into the plot. When the apparently disparate strands of the story begin to coalesce it all makes perfect sense. So I think Find You First would work well on screen with the Harlen Coben treatment we’ve seen in recent years. Netflix France take note!
Miles Cookson is a rich tech entrepreneur with everything going for him and yet he never settled down and had a family. When he discovers that he’s dying of Huntington’s, a cruel disease, a hyper-active mix of ALS and Alzheimer’s, he has to think about telling people and sorting his priorities. There’s no treatment, no cure, Huntington’s is hereditary, with a fifty percent chance of getting it and dying young. Miles has to think of his brother and his assistant points out it’s a good thing he doesn’t have any children, but he does – nine. Before Miles made his money he sold sperm to a fertility clinic. The clinic won’t disclose the names of the children but Miles finds a way to get around that. His plan is to approach the children, warn them of the condition and leave a legacy for them. Then Miles meets feisty offspring Chloe and they team up. Her attitude to the illness isn’t what he expects and she tells him to shove his money. But when they start trying to contact the other potential heirs someone else is hunting them, killing them and totally erasing their existence. Is it someone inside the wider family trying to protect their own legacy? There’s another strand to the story involving grotesque billionaire Jeremy Pritikin, loosely modelled on Jeffrey Epstein. The two stories is inventively and ingeniously linked.
The relationship between Chloe and Miles adds humour and richness to the novel. The writing is consummate this may be Barclays’s finest novel. A pure joy to read, thrilling, thought provoking, and not least, a lot of fun.
HQ, paperback, ISBN 97808332082, paperback, out now
Personal/group read 5*
The Bones of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake
Writing this good speaks for itself and James Carlos Blake is a born storyteller. I interviewed Blake recently, it took me a while to track him down in his mountain shack writer’s hideaway, but we got there in the end. It turns out much of the inspiration for the Wolfe series comes from his own family history which straddles the border. The Wolfe series is a chronicle of a century of borderland life, the good and the bad. Although The Bones of Wolfe has a very contemporary setting it still reaches into the past.
The latest Wolfe novel tells the story of Rudy and Frank and opens with an arms shipment and a hijack. When a crew running a consignment of guns from the US into Mexico is ambushed the men are killed the Wolfe family has to react quickly. The customer is still expecting their cargo and there’s a traitor to deal with. The two sides of the family north and south of the border start piecing together what happened. Frank and Rudy recover a haul of high quality pornography from a raid. Someone spots a canny resemblance between one of the women in the video and an old family photo. When the family matriarch, Aunt Clara, 115 years old, recognises the girl in a still from the video, a spit for her own sister kidnapped many decades before she tasks Frank and Rudy with tracking the girl down. The problem is the girl is a favourite of the boss of the Sinaloa cartel. To rescue the girl they have to get her out without alerting the cartel and bringing the wrath of the drugs gang down on the family.
Thoroughly entertaining, the language is exquisite as the calm on the surface masks the trouble brewing. This is not the best of the Wolfe novels, the story is a little thin, but it’s still streets up on most crime novels and, in particular, borderland noir. I love Don Winslow but Blake is also the real deal deserving a wide audience for his credible exploration of crime and Amexicana issues.
No exit press, paperback, ISBN , out now
Personal/group read 4*
The Good Death by SD Sykes
Back to the fourteenth century and the Black Death so there’s no doubt that the current covid outbreak gave impetus to the backdrop in this book. However, the clever thing is that although this is not about the plague per se, which killed half the population of Europe, the devastation plays into the story in a unique and significant way. This is a really intriguing facet of the novel, I can’t say more without spoilers.
Kent, June, 1349. Brother Oswald has been sent out to find Sundew, a plant that secretes a sticky goo which entraps flies for food, but also helps with treating wounds and can be used as a sedative. The oldest brother at Kintham Abbey has an abscess. Wandering through the woods Oswald sees young Agnes Wheeler, a girl from the local village who has been to the abbey many times, but his presence spooks her and when he approaches she runs away. Foolishly Oswald chases the girl and in panic she winds up in the river, unable to reach shore she is washed away. Eventually Oswald pulls the body of the girl from the water, that’s when he sees the obvious signs of assault on her bloody clothes. At the village he tries to explain what happened, the local constable John Roach is hostile but it seems Agnes is not the only girl to go missing. The women round on the lazy constable demanding a search for the attacker. Oswald is struck by the formidable Maud Woodstock and the authority she exercises over the constable. With the plague approaching and the village in quarantine Oswald and Maud investigate Agnes’s death and the other missing young women.
Somerville, 1370. Oswald, now Lord of the manor, is attending his mother on her death bed. She has a letter in her hands, a confession written by Oswald all those years ago and hidden in her papers until now. As the full story is not in the letter his mother demands an explanation. Oswald tells her that the truth will hurt her but she demands to know. So we are taken back to 1349 and the events surrounding Agnes’s death.
This is an intriguing mystery reminiscent of the Cadfael mysteries in some ways but the sensibilities are far more modern. The plight of women of the time is an issue; tied to a man, either a father or a husband. Easy to get into, captures the time and place perfectly, this is well written and engaging.
Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, ISBN 9781529388169, out now
Personal/Group read 4*
Hunt by Leona Deakin
A Detective Bloom Thriller. Firmly back in the modern world for a political thriller that defies easy definition. Deakin refusing to follow anything but her own path. The story takes turns that are unexpected, if not strange, but it all makes sense in the end when it ties up nicely.
The novel opens with a girl committing suicide. Full of self-loathing, always put down by others, her existence always about the men in her life, like she didn’t matter. She fills a rucksack with stones and throws herself into the water.
The police are knocking on the door of foreign secretary Gerald Porter. When DCI Mirza and DI Bristol are shown in they ask for his whereabouts between 24th-26th January. There’s an unexplained gap in his diary. His secretary knows nothing but he did fly to Dubai for a meeting with an unknown person. There a suspicion of Porter being a traitor. He refuses to answer any questions and demands to be arrested under the Terrorism Act, which means he can be held for fourteen days, they oblige. He is then taken to the basement of the MOD. Mirza tracks down Dr Augusta Bloom up Ingleborough in the Yorkshire dales. She agrees to meet with Porter but doesn’t know him or what he wants. Porter has a straight forward, if odd, proposition. He will talk to the police if Bloom solves a domestic matter for him. His sister Greta has a problem with her daughter Scarlett, she hasn’t been in touch with her family for years. Last seen she was getting close to Artemis’s charismatic leader Paula Kunis. Scarlett’s substantial inheritance has gone and now Scarlett has disappeared. Is Artemis a well meaning organisation dedicated to women’s rights or a cult? Naturally the personal story has far reaching implications and layers of complication making the story more intriguing. This is a twisty thriller with a strong ending. Honestly, not entirely to my taste but if you are looking for something that is different this may be for you.
Paperback, ISBN , out now
Personal read 3* group read 3½*
The Shadow Men by M.R. Mackenzie
An Anna Scavolini Mystery.
I very much enjoyed last year’s stand alone The Library Murders by Mackenzie which was inventive, playful and enjoyable. This third in the Anna Scavolini series is darker, evoking everything from physical setting to the weather to heighten the sense of tension and conspiracy and at the heart of the mystery:
“Mother nature, it seemed, was determined to inflict a reckoning for sins as yet unatoned for – a Reckoning which, judging by the unrelenting ferocity of the assault, would not be complete until blood had been spilled.”
September, 2015. Sergeant Gil McLaren, road policing, was called to the scene of the RTA on the M8 at 00.45am. The driver was killed on impact, the car mangled. Gil senses something familiar about the victim but before it clicks a black sedan containing the Assistant Chief Constable for West Scotland police, Peter Strickland, pulls up. Strickland calls him over, it’s obvious Gil’s been drinking again, so he sends him home. Gil is kind of relieved at being dismissed but why was the ACC there in the first place? Meanwhile a man with a rucksack is waiting on a city street for a contact that doesn’t show.
Criminologist Dr Anna Scavolini has just finishes a lecture when DCI Vasilico approaches, he wants to talk about one of her post-grad students, Derek Sullivan, a serving police officer. Sullivan has been missing for two weeks. Anna doesn’t think she can tell Vasilico much, she hasn’t seen her student in weeks and they only meet once a month anyway. Is she being totally honest, something niggles at her about letting Sullivan down. Anna agrees to attend the case conference the next day.
Zoe Callaghan, used to be tight with Anna, why they aren’t anymore is a story in itself. Zoe has her own mystery to solve, her investigation of disturbing rumours about her old school, Willow Bank, leads to a secret cabal of powerful men, Scottish society’s crème de la crème. When they feel threatened they strike:
“You can’t touch me, it seemed to say. I’m powerful and well-connected, and you’re not.”
A satisfying layered mystery, that muses on power and corruption. Mackenzie enjoys flipping tropes, and there’s a deal of humour too. Strong story telling and intriguing characters.
Mad House, paperback, ISBN 9781916094826, out now
Personal/group read 4*
Dust Off the Bones by Paul Howarth
I missed Howarth’s acclaimed debut novel Only Killers and Thieves and now I’m regretting that in the light of this powerful and gripping historical drama. Dust Off the Bones is an engaging thriller but also a devastating indictment of murderous colonialism. The novel opens with the state sanctioned massacre of the Kurrong people, more than one hundred men, women and children slaughtered under the pretext of seeking the murderers of three white settlers, ‘innocents murdered by savages’. This is Queensland, 1885, this act of genocide stands for many such real and horrifying incidents in Australian history. The reverend Francis Bean and indigenous disciple Matthew come across the aftermath of the attack, the bodies piled high in a crater are still burning. Sickened by the scene the two men ride for four days to the nearest white settlement Bewley. The day before it happened they saw the men responsible for the raid, a native police patrol led by Inspector Noone. At the court house Matthew is thrown out, and as Bean explains what they saw to local police magistrate McIntyre it’s clear he doesn’t care. He tells Bean he can make a statement but warns him that if he gives testimony Noone will hunt him down and kill him. Bean flees in shame and fear and the matter rests.
- Then we meet Billy and Tommy McBride, now young men, they were children orphaned by the attack on their homestead five years earlier. The brothers haven’t seen each other since they were part of the hunt for the killers and the massacre that followed. Billy works for Katherine Sullivan, he wants his own place and she’s prepared to stake him to land but what she actually wants is for Billy to marry her. Billy can’t see that, so how long can she wait. Tommy is working four hundred miles south on the New South Wales border for Cal Burns, a farmer as brutal as the unforgiving climate. One day when Tommy and Aboriginal help mate Arthur are fencing a paddock, several days of work, Burns turns up. He fires his pistol in the air for the pleasure of seeing Tommy hit the ground in panic, the memory of what happened five years weighs heavy on him. Burns won’t leave it at that ‘little joke’ and eventually Tommy snaps. Burns is killed and Tommy and Arthur are on the run. Disappearing into the bush.
As Billy gets his place up and running the last person Billy wants to see is Inspector Noone. The man who separated him from Tommy on pain of death after the massacre to keep them silent. Noone is hunting Tommy but he’ll stop if Billy helps him solve another problem. The wheels of justice are slow to move but eventually news of the massacre comes out. Now Billy must find Tommy for both their sakes.
This is beautifully understated writing that allows a human tragedy to speak for itself. This is also a sweeping epic that explores the cruelty, intolerance and pitilessness of colonial Australia. Howarth creates strong believable characters and makes the best of the barren landscape and harsh climate. This is an original, thought provoking and poignant story. It might make you weep, it will certainly stay with you. This is the kind of novel that makes crime fiction relevant.
ONE, Pushkin Press, hardback, ISBN 9781911590538, out now
Personal/Group read 5*
Back to Japan for the finale.
Tokyo Zangyo by Michael Pronko
The fourth of Michael Pronko’s detective Hiroshi stories is another sharp insight into Japanese culture and in particular Tokyo life. This is a really decent mystery and the crimes at its heart have a very distinctive local character.
The roof of Senden HQ, the Marunouchi business district, Sunday night. Shigeru Onizuka groggily comes around, the alcoholic haze is slow to lift. He realises his feet are tied, he’s naked and his memory blank. The spotlights illuminating the building blind him, but he can hear voices. He unties himself, stumbles around looking for something to wear. Then he remembers the girl who jumped, since she did the fencing has been erected to stop somebody else getting the same idea. It runs the perimeter of the roof. The voices cajole him, confuse him. He walks to the edge, the very spot the girl jumped from. He’s had enough, all the pressure, the work load, the lack of gratitude, his broken family life, he’s tired. He takes one last step to end it all and falls.
Onizukas’s body is found by a tourist, Detective Sakaguchi, head of homicide is at the scene when Detective Hiroshi Shinizu arrives. The whole team are tired, over worked, underpaid. Zangyo is the Japanese concept of unpaid overtime, it’s expected of the police and business staff. To top it all Sakaguchi has a bad knee, it should treated, but he doesn’t have time and Ueno, who should be on sick leave only has a dispensation to start late every day while he is recovering from being shot.
They realise the dead guy was in the news a few years ago, he was the boss of the girl who tweeted about being harassed and bullied at work, the problem was so bad that she committed suicide. Then they realise Onizuka jumped from the same spot as Mayo Yamase. It looks like suicide but the fence had been cut and there are no wire cutters on the roof or with the body. Someone orchestrated this.
“Everything about the case reminded Hiroshi of why he hated the big Japanese companies – the vicious competition, the strict hierarchy, the indifference.”
The theme of the book is overwork, illustrated in the parallels between the victims and the police themselves. Reflecting on a worrying aspect of Japanese society. The ensemble of detectives and their working relationships is well realised. Pronko’s knowledge of Japanese society, he’s a professor at a college in Tokyo, is put to good use.
Raked Gravel Press, ISBN 9781942410256, paperback, out now
Personal/group read 3½*