From hardboiled Boston to alternative London via fairy tale Paris.
Someone to Watch Over Me by Ace Atkins
A Robert B Parker Spenser mystery.
When American crime fiction legend Parker died in 2010 Ace Atkins took on the mantle of writing his Boston set Spenser novels. I’ve expressed my reservations about this kind of handing the baton in the past but, occasionally, like here, when it’s well done, it works. Atkins gets the spirit of the hardboiled PI novel, he channels Parker but also Chandler and Hammett in this wisecracking, gritty contemporary novel. This is the ninth Atkins has written, the forty-ninth in the series over all and it’s one of the strongest. A straightforward zeitgeisty tale with real bite.
Spenser is chilling out, kicking his heels, when new protégée Mattie comes to him for advice. Mattie knows a girl who got paid to go to a private club to give a guy a massage, that’s all it was supposed to be, $500 cash in hand. The girl got spooked when the guy started pleasuring himself in front of her – sure she was naive but Chloe is only fifteen years old. She fled in panic, leaving her bag and her tablet behind. When she went back for her things the next day the men at the club were angry, she was told to get lost, they even threatened her. Spenser’s heart sinks as he hears this story, he’s determined Chloe and Mattie should talk to Sex Crimes but they are reluctant, Chloe fears getting into trouble. Meanwhile, Spenser is going to help Chloe get her computer back. Mattie goes to the Blackstone Club but like Chloe she’s sent packing. A couple of guys tail her from the club, these creeps are easily sorted with Spenser’s help and now they’re even more determined to sort things out for the schoolgirl. Chloe wants her computer back, Mattie wants the reward, Chloe’s fee, and Spenser wants the pervert gaoled. As they investigate they find out that there are other girls involved, girls with terrible stories of abuse and rape. Spenser calls on long time friend Hawk for help as they battle a twisted billionaire, Peter Steiner, his cruel British female procurer, Poppy Palmer, and their slimy lawyer, Greebel. If some of the details sounds familiar to something you may have seen in the news over the last couple of years that’s no coincidence.
This is a dark, bruising tale of sex trafficking and paedophilia but it’s not short on wit and snappy dialogue. It’s gripping, fast paced and satisfying.
No Exit Press, paperback, ISBN 9780857304285, April
Trap for Cinderella by Sébastien Japrisot
The French love American noir but, of course, they infuse it with a distinctly Gallic flavour when they indulge in creating their own crime novels. There’s an element of farce in Japrisot bordering on surrealism but that just seems to add more bite to the mystery, a very clever psychological drama. Originally published in France as Piège pour Cendrillon in 1962 this novel won the Grand Prix de Littérature policière in 1963.
The novel opens with a dark riff on a fairy tale, this is a Cinderella story without a happy ending. There are three little girls, Mi, Do and La, and they have a godmother, a rich old lady called aunt Midola who cares for them. One of them dies, of the two whom are left one is loved, the other not. The surviving girls grow up, grow apart, Mi becomes Michèle, known as Micky, Do becomes Dominique, they live far from their godmother. When the old woman is dying the two girls visit her seaside villa in Italy. After the funeral there’s a fire, one girl lives, one dies.
A twenty year old woman wakes in hospital screaming with pain, she has serious burns and has needs plastic surgery. Micky is strapped down and sedated for months as she recovers. She has no memory to comfort her, she is dislocated from the world. The staff are reassuring and her wounds are healing. Dr Doulin prepares her for the bandages coming off. Gradually Micky learns about the fire from which she escaped at Cap Cadet, but her dear friend, Dominique, is dead. Gradually they introduce her to her past, to photos and letters but none of it chimes with Micky. Her aunt is dead, her old governess, Jeanne, comes to collect her and takes her to live in Paris. Her retrograde amnesia is not a result of the fire but fifteen years of her life are gone. Jeanne won’t let Micky see her old friends, which makes Micky suspicious, what is she hiding? Micky is due to inherit her aunt’s fortune in a few months time but now she begins to wonder if she is Micky or Dominique. What actually happened on the day of the fire? Is she a lucky survivor or a murderer, a victim of a perpetrator? Micky will have to turn detective to find out.
There are twists on twists in this elegantly plotted story. This is a layered tale underpinned by a rich psychological drama. Japrisot loves playing with the structure of the mystery story to the delight of the reader. Original and fresh even after nearly fifty years. Translated by Helen Weaver and adapted by Gallic Press.
Gallic Press, paperback, ISBN 9781913547127, April
Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler
The latest Peculiar Crime Unit, PCU, investigation begins as the unit are being disbanded, everything is falling apart. Arthur Bryant is discussing the latest installment of his memoir with publisher, Simon Sartorius, who seems to think Arthur’s rider that the narrative is a lie is too blunt for readers, even though much of what’s written may actually be misremembered. People want to believe a policeman is honest, as good as his word says the publisher. Simon has another problem, Arthur’s ghost-writer is a jailbird. Arthur defends Cynthia’s counterfeiting as a political act rather than a criminal one, but, of course, she is also a kleptomaniac. But then candidates for the job weren’t queueing up at the door after his first biographer was murdered.
The Nick of Time is the latest memorable case for the PCU which investigates shocking events likely to cause affright to the public and bring about violence. The Unit chief Raymond Land is just informing everyone in a long memo that the unit is being disbanded. And while they may have jobs to go to it’s probably the end for him given his age and the usual blame game. Despite his entreaties to do otherwise they, the staff, went and got themselves closed down. Now Arthur Bryant has gone missing and John May is in hospital recovering from being shot, actually on the Peculiar Crimes Unit premises.
The past. There was a child at the Albion Infants School in Deptford who was hell bent on growing up a murderer, he resented the other children, held grudges over sharing things and generally seethed. The early signs were there for all to see but no one was actually looking. The real trouble didn’t start then though, that can be traced to an event years later, a bookshop that burned down destroying a Queen Anne building because wood and paper burn very well. The police arrested the bookshop owner, Christian Albu, a Romanian who’d been living here 8 years, he was found in the alleyway behind his property covered in soot. Albu claimed to be innocent pointing to a guy he dealt with who was very angry when their deal went south. Albu has been buying rare manuscripts, stolen from museums and libraries, from this mysterious and scary individual. Before the investigation could go much further Albu committed suicide – maybe.
Back to the present, while May has surgery and the world moves on. A lawyer turned MP, now the speaker of the house of commons, steps out into the street between two trucks and is buried under a landslide of crates of fruit – oranges and lemons. His ribcage is punctured by a broken wooden strut of one of them. Perhaps it’s an unlucky happening but the home secretary demands the temporary reinstatement of the PU and DCIs Arthur Bryant and John May are encouraged to make up their differences and get back to work. A devious criminal is on the loose.
Fowler’s stories are endlessly inventive, very witty and fast paced. Deliciously dark and royally entertaining.
Penguin, paperback, ISBN 9780857504104, April
Reviewed by Paul Burke