A Barclay to bank on

Sat, Jul 28, 2012, 01:00

CRIME BEATThe ritualistic murder of young women links parallel stories in Karin Slaughter’s 11th novel, Criminal (Century, £18.99). One of the strands is set in contemporary Atlanta and features Slaughter’s regular series protagonist – the Georgia Bureau of Investigation detective Will Trent – but the bulk of the novel takes place in the mid-1970s and focuses on Will’s immediate superior, Amanda Wagner.

Slaughter’s pacy narrative is a blend of the conventional police procedural and a thriller’s switchback twists and turns, with a serial killer stirred in to season the mix. But it’s the novel’s less frantic passages that offer the most intrigue.

As we watch Wagner take her first tentative steps towards becoming a successful investigator we are exposed to a poisonously racist and sexist atmosphere – one in which, according to Slaughter, female policewomen dealt every day with the possibility of being raped on the job, and not always by the criminals. It’s a haunting account, accentuated by Slaughter’s deliberately prosaic and downbeat delivery, which emphasises the extent to which women of the era were forced to accept their lot. Slaughter wears her research lightly, but this is a thriller with an impressive ambition to offer more than the genre’s conventions generally allow.

Pierced (Faber and Faber, £14.99) is the Norwegian author Thomas Enger’s second novel, and a direct sequel to Burned (2011). The journalist Henning Juul has yet to come to terms with the death by fire of his young son Jonas two years previously, a fire in which Henning also received extensive burns, when he gets a call from Tore Pulli, a gangland enforcer serving time in prison for murder.

The hook is this: if Henning helps Pulli with his appeal against his conviction, Pulli will provide information about who was behind the fire that killed his son. Enger, himself a former online journalist in Norway, invests the ensuing tale of bodybuilding, gangland feuds and tit-for-tat vendettas with a pleasing verisimilitude, which ensures Henning Juul is far removed from the stereotypical hero of revenge thrillers.

Enger’s decision to tell the story in the third-person present tense adds little to its pace or tension, however, and despite his harrowing back story Juul is not a particularly interesting character in terms of his personality or how he goes about his investigation.

Where Thomas Enger inserts his character’s woes into the narrative with a heavy hand, Alex Barclay is much more deft in making the personal political in Blood Loss (Harper, £6.99), her fifth novel in all and the third to feature the Denver-based FBI agent Ren Bryce, who works with Colorado’s Safe Streets programme.

The disappearance of two young girls from their hotel room in the skiing town of Breckenridge looks to be a straightforward case of abduction, but Ren, who suffers from bipolar disorder and is struggling with one of her manic phases, quickly finds the case opening up to involve the abuse of antipsychotic drugs and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry.

By making Ren’s internal monologues an integral part of the character’s appeal, Barclay establishes her heroine as an empathic, self-questioning, no-nonsense woman who is deliciously self-lacerating when it comes to her faults, even if such hyperawareness tends to cause her to doubt her own judgment. Perversely, given the theme of the damage wrought on mental health by misdiagnosis and prescription for profit, this is arguably Barclay’s most balanced novel to date, as Ren’s personal and professional concerns dovetail for a persuasive finale.

Steven Dunne’s third novel, Deity (Headline, £6.99), sees the return of Det Insp Damen Brook of Derby CID, a man previously plagued by serial killers in The Reaper (2009) and The Disciple (2010). This time DI Brook is confronted with a killer who is abducting the homeless in order to practise a rudimentary form of autopsy, in which all the victim’s internal organs except the heart are stripped out.

It’s a nasty business, so Brook doesn’t pay too much attention when some college students are reported missing. When the students begin to turn up on a website called Deity, announcing their imminent death and immortality, Brook is forced to take their disappearance very seriously indeed.

At first glance DI Brook appears to be the latest morose, monosyllabic copper to fall off crime fiction’s conveyor belt, a socially awkward loner battling demons of his own conjuring. Dunne is aware of the tropes, however, and one of the more enjoyable aspects of this ambitiously plotted tale is watching Brook force himself to become more recognisably human, a process accelerated when his estranged daughter comes to live with him.

It’s an enjoyable read, although it suffers in the latter stages from the problem that undermines most serial-killer novels, as Dunne struggles to persuade us that the character who is insane enough to repeatedly kill is lucid enough to hatch and execute a mind-bogglingly complex plan.

Matt Rees won a CWA Dagger for his series of novels about the Palestinian private detective Omar Yussef, although recently he has turned to writing historical crime titles. A Name in Blood (Corvus, £14.99) follows Mozart’s Last Aria (2011) and concerns itself with the life of the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Was the artist a murderer or did he kill while defending himself in a duel? Did he accidentally drown or was he murdered by the Knights of Malta? In truth, the answers provided here scarcely matter.

A Name in Blood is a richly detailed account of the more vibrant aspects of Caravaggio’s life, which was as full of shadow, blood and death as his celebrated work. Rees does full justice to the artist, investing him with a brooding, self-destructive soul that is equal parts classical tragedy and noir fatalism. All told, it’s a sumptuous piece of work.


Declan Burke is a journalist and author. His latest novel, Slaughter’s Hound, is published this month by Liberties Press