Crime fiction review: The reluctant secret policeman

An ambitous novel blending police procedural, spy novel and historical mystery

 

An IRA raid on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park in 1939; Frank Ryan’s experience of prison in post-Civil War Spain; a missing postman, believed murdered in the Wicklow Mountains. The City in Darkness (Constable, €19.99), the third in Michael Russell’s historical crime fiction series featuring “the reluctant secret policeman” Stefan Gillespie, fairly brims over with story, but Russell – formerly a writer on the TV crime dramas The Bill, A Touch of Frost and Midsomer Murders – has a canny ability to braid the various plot strands, with Gillespie’s experience and access as a Special Branch detective personalising the political (the chapter on Stefan’s German Christmas in Baltinglass is beautifully detailed). Gillespie, Irish-born to German parents, is a fascinating variation on the crime fiction staple of the outsider observing a society in flux, and Russell is excellent at evoking Emergency-era Dublin as Ireland comes to terms with “the darkness descending over the darkling plain of the continent”. It’s an ambitious novel, blending as it does the police procedural, the spy novel and the historical mystery, but it’s one that bears comparison with the best work of Alan Furst and John Lawton.

Norwegian author Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal (Orenda Books, €8.99) opens with disgraced TV presenter Allis Hagtorn taking a position as housekeeper for Sigurd Bagge at his remote home on an isolated fjord. Severe and reserved, the impenetrable Bagge is a mystery to Allis, particularly when it comes to the whereabouts of his absent wife. As their relationship becomes more emotionally complex, however, Allis begins to unearth mysteries that might well have been best left buried. Translated by Rosie Hedger, The Bird Tribunal is a chilly psychological thriller / domestic noir that unfolds in an austere style that perfectly captures the bleakly beautiful landscape of Norway’s far north. Allis makes for a fascinating narrator, “like a protagonist from a Knut Hamsun novel, a strange outsider making life peculiar for everyone,” and while the story has echoes of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Ravatn also blends in elements from Norse mythology and gothic fairytales as the unsettling narrative drives propulsively forward to its chilling conclusion.

Trespass (Head of Zeus, €21.90) is the fourth of Anthony J Quinn’s novels to feature Celcius Daly, a police detective operating in Northern Ireland’s shadowy borderlands in the years immediately following “the Troubles”. Assigned to mundane courthouse duties while under internal investigation, Daly is pressed into service as lead detective when a 10-year-old boy is abducted by members of the Travelling community from outside the courthouse. His investigation quickly expands to include the mystery of a young woman who disappeared with her baby during the 1970s, a disappearance linked to a paramilitary organisation sworn to defend Ulster’s borders. Quinn’s prose has a quality of bleak poetry (the borderlands suffers from “the vague malaise of a history and people in flux”, a world of “old farmers and their wives floating along in their solitary routines like weeds trailing in a stagnant pond”) and Daly’s ongoing political battle with Special Branch creates a tone of resigned pessimism: “How could anyone believe in law and order when the authorities pretended that some victims never existed and that their ghost did not haunt their loved ones?” The Travelling community is invested with a mysticism that isn’t fully convincing, but otherwise Trespass is a bracing tale of a society ravaged by violence and poisoned to its core by festering wounds.

Tanya Farrelly’s debut The Girl Behind the Lens (Killer Reads, €12.99) opens with solicitor Oliver Molloy discovering the body of a man drowned in a Dublin canal. Oliver is separated from his wife, Mercedes – or so he tells Joanna Lacey, a student photographer and the daughter of the drowned man. The reader, however, already knows that Oliver has strangled Mercedes in a violent frenzy, and the scene is set for an absorbing psychological thriller. Some of the characters’ motives and actions strain credulity – in particular, Oliver’s tempestuous relationship with his sister-in-law Carmen – but Farrelly tells her story in a direct, spare style that takes the heat out of the more melodramatic flourishes. The ostensibly bland Oliver Molloy is one of the most skin-crawlingly creepy characters to appear in Irish crime fiction this year (“He comforted himself with thoughts of all those missing women, of the thousands reported every week who were never found. . .”); equally impressive is the way in which Farrelly bucks the genre’s conventions at the denouement in refusing to tie up all the loose ends with a pat conclusion of justice served.

Formerly a medicus with the 20th Legion in Britannia, Gaius Petreius Ruso arrives in Rome with his wife Tilla and their daughter Mara in Vita Brevis (Bloomsbury, €22.50), the seventh in Ruth Downie’s series. Scrabbling for work, Ruso takes over the abandoned practice of Dr Kleitos, but their new life gets off to a disastrous start when a dead body is delivered to their door in a barrel. Determined to prove to their neighbours that they are not barbarians practicing bizarre rituals, Ruso sets out to investigate the circumstances behind the man’s death, and soon finds himself wandering in a political maze in a city “that has too much of everything” – death included. A Ruth Downie novel offers many pleasures, not least of them the humorously conflicted marriage between Roman citizen Ruso and the Briton Tilla – they’re a kind of Roman Nick and Nora – but where Vita Brevis really scores is in its contemporary resonances with Ruso and Tilla’s immigrant experience: “We don’t mind Greeks and Syrians and Gauls, as long as they work,” says one neighbour, “and we put up with followers of Christos, but this is too much.” Meticulously researched, the Ruso novels are historical mysteries to rank alongside those of Lindsey Davis.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is the editor of Trouble is Our Business (New Island), a collection of new stories from Irish crime writers.

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