Boyd brings back Bond as he takes off on solo run in Africa

Cream of crime writing rounded up

007: William Boyd with his James Bond novel. Photograph: Philip Toscano / PA Wire

007: William Boyd with his James Bond novel. Photograph: Philip Toscano / PA Wire


Set in 1969, Solo (Jonathan Cape, €25.99) is the latest James Bond novel from a high-profile author, as William Boyd follows in the footsteps of Sebastian Faulks (Devil May Care, 2008) and Jeffrey Deaver (Carte Blanche, 2011) in re-creating Ian Fleming’s hero. The fictional oil-rich African country of Zanzarim is embroiled in civil war, and Bond, with a cover story as a journalist, is dispatched by M to render the rebels’ inspirational leader, Solomon Adeka, a “less efficient soldier”.

Bond, more sensitive and better rounded here than he was on Fleming’s watch, reads Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter on the BOAC flight to Zanzarim, alerting us to Boyd’s theme of a new country’s postcolonial struggle to assert independence on its own terms as it fends off the West’s rapacious drive for natural resources.

Bond is happy to serve as a tool of the British government’s dirty tricks, of course, but being played for its patsy is another matter. Hung out to dry, 007 commits the cardinal sin of going solo as he pursues a personal revenge. The poetic flourishes that go into the vividly realised setting of Zanzarim apart, Boyd’s prose is crisp and clean, and the story fairly ricochets through its twists and turns as Bond zips from London to east Africa and on to the US. Fans of the original Fleming novels will find much to enjoy.

Cross of Vengeance (Severn House, €19.99) is the 10th of Cora Harrison’s novels to feature Mara, the 15th-century Brehon judge based in the Burren, in the west of Ireland.

Here Mara investigates the murder of a German pilgrim to the church at Kilnaboy, who is discovered naked and spread-eagled in the cruciform position the morning after a precious religious relic is burned. Given that the pilgrim was a follower of Martin Luther, some locals believe his death was an act of God, but Mara, who is not noticeably devout, goes in search of a more prosaic killer.

The religious fanaticism that underpins Cross of Vengeance gives it a contemporary resonance, but for the most part it is an unabashedly and enjoyably old-fashioned mystery investigation as Mara quietly but conscientiously interviews suspects and excavates motives. The setting is integral to the plot, and Harrison’s elegant style beautifully evokes the world of the Burren, in terms not only of its sights and sounds but also of its languid pace and enduring traditions.

Most intriguing of all, however, is the experience of a murder investigation conducted according to ancient Brehon law. It’s a fascinating blend.

The threat posed by hitchhikers is a staple of crime and suspense fiction, but Linwood Barclay’s A Tap on the Window (Orion, €15.99) gives it a neat twist. Private detective Cal Weaver offers a lift to high-school student Claire late one night, hoping that she might be able to shed some light on the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of his son, Scott. His plan is scuppered, however, when Claire asks him to pull in to an all-night diner and then engineers a switch with her friend Hanna.

When Cal discovers their ploy, Hanna runs away – only to be discovered, murdered, some hours later. Barclay’s seventh standalone novel blends the tropes of the private-eye novel with those of the domestic suspense thriller as Cal scuffles around the small town of Griffon in search of the truth about Claire, Hanna and Scott. The spare, direct prose and cliff-hanger chapter endings drive a tension-fuelled tale that is underpinned by a bleakly fatalistic noir tone.

Equally bleak in tone is Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (Folio Society, £27.50), the post-second World War classic of detective fiction, which was first published in 1952.

It opens with Allingham’s recurring hero Albert Campion investigating an apparent case of blackmail. Campion is by no means the central figure here, however; the novel quickly becomes a compelling character study of a serial killer, Jack Havoc – the “Tiger” – and the Smoke: postwar, fog-bound London. Beautifully bound, this edition features evocative illustrations by Finn Campbell-Notman and an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith.

The shadow of another charismatic serial killer looms large in Cross and Burn (Little, Brown, €15.99), the eighth novel to feature the clinical psychologist Tony Hill. Val McDermid first created the killer Jacko Vance in The Wire in the Blood (1997); it is the consequences of Vance’s brutal murders in The Retribution (2011) that play out here, particularly in terms of how they sunder the fragile relationship between Tony and the recently retired chief inspector Carol Jordan.

With Carol’s specialist investigative unit now split up, the story follows her protegee, Paula McIntyre, as she joins a new team and investigates a series of savagely intimate killings of young women.

Shockingly, the investigation appears to identify Tony Hill as the murderer. Has Tony spent so long mired in the minds of killers that he has tipped into the abyss?

McDermid subtly erodes our confidence in what we think we know about her characters to the point where anything seems possible. The result is her finest novel in years, as the twists of the conventional serial-killer novel are fleshed out with perceptive psychological insights into the minds of pursuers who are disillusioned with their trade and increasingly conscious of their professional and personal failings.

A superb thriller in its own right, Cross and Burn is also something of a masterclass in how to reinvigorate a series.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He edited Books to Die For with John Connolly.

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