Crime writing: new thrillers by Stephen King, Karin Fossum, Philip Kerr, Jarlath Gregory and Renee Knight
Declan Burke: ‘Misery’ loves company as Stephen King’s literary recluse meets maker
Author Stephen King. Photograph: Stacey Cramp/The New York Times
Stephen King’s Finders Keepers (Hodder & Stoughton, €29.50) opens in 1978 with the murder, during a home invasion, of “America’s reclusive genius” John Rothstein, the author of the acclaimed Jimmy Gold trilogy.
The police suspect the burglars were after the cash Rothstein kept in his safe, but the reader already knows better: the killer is Morris Bellamy, John Rothstein’s most avid fan, who has come in search of the notebooks and the novels it’s rumoured the author has continued to write ever since he ceased publishing.
A sequel-of-sorts to King’s Mr Mercedes (2014), which also featured retired police detective Bill Hodges, Finders Keepers reprises the kind of murderous literary obsession King wrote about in Misery (1987). Rothstein is a Salinger figure, of course, (his last published short story is The Perfect Banana Pie), but while King does on occasion use Rothstein as a stick to beat the American literary establishment, the story evolves as a clash between those who want Rothstein’s notebooks only for what they are worth in terms of “the Golden Buck” and those who cherish them as cultural treasures.
Littered with literary references, the novel is a hugely enjoyable thriller that unfolds in a style reminiscent of the late, great Elmore Leonard.
Disclaimer (Doubleday, €19.50), the debut novel from former BBC arts documentary director Renee Knight, begins with Catherine Ravenscroft vomiting with the shock of discovering that she is the anti-heroine of a novel called The Perfect Stranger: “the details are unmistakable, right down to what she was wearing that afternoon.” (To hammer home the message, the traditional disclaimer in Catherine’s copy of the book has red line drawn through it.)
The mystery behind the events of “that afternoon”, which took place some two decades ago when Catherine was holidaying in Spain with her five-year-old son Nicholas, provide both Disclaimer and the novel-within-a-novel with their narrative drive, as Catherine strives to discover exactly how retired English teacher Stephen Brigstocke, the author of The Perfect Stranger, came by his information, and why he might want to destroy her life by revealing her terrible secret.
In the process Knight broaches the taboo subject of “the mother who put herself before her child”, exploring how Catherine’s actions led to tragedy and the destruction of two families.
An enthralling take on the “domestic noir” sub-genre, Disclaimer is equally fascinating – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given Knight’s former career – as a commentary on subjective truth.
Prodigal son Jay O’Reilly returns home to the “no man’s land, the border, bandit country” of south Armagh in Jarlath Gregory’s The Organised Criminal (Liberties Press, €12.99), where his father Frank holds sway as the area’s most notorious smuggler. When Frank offers Jay a life-changing criminal opportunity, Jay throws it back in his face, but soon Jay has been overtaken by events and is plotting to destroy his father’s empire from within.
The Catholic Church and the Troubles cast long shadows across Gregory’s story, which provides a cultural and historical context for Frank’s activities while simultaneously damning him for taking advantage of his own people. “Have you forgotten what it was like,” Jay asks his friend Martin, “the last time this town fell into the hands of people with guns?”
The frequent narrative digressions and occasional diatribes do slow the pace of The Organised Criminal, but overall it’s a fascinating post-Troubles tale of moral ambivalence in a community still struggling to accommodate its very particular history.
The 11th novel in Norwegian author Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker, €20.55) opens with Sejer and his colleague Skarre attending the tragic death of toddler Tommy Zita, who fell into a pond beside his family home – or so his mother, Carmen, claims.
Prompted by Skarre’s instinct that something isn’t quite right about the scene, Sejer interviews Carmen and her husband Nicolai, curious in particular as to how they both reacted on the night Tommy was born and they first realised he was a Down syndrome child.
Fossum’s Inspector Sejer novels are invariably morally and psychologically complex affairs, but The Drowned Boy might well be her crowning achievement to date.
Essentially a whodunnit with only one real suspect, the story is notable for its empathy for both victim and killer alike as Fossum employs a spare style and austere tone (beautifully translated here by Kari Dickson) to explore the limitations of justice and truth as Sejer quietly goes about his business according to his life’s guiding principle, the deceptively simple belief that, “It’s important that everything is right, it’s fair.”
Philip Kerr’s police detective Bernie Gunther is a superb example of that crime fiction staple, the moral individual who finds himself in conflict with the corrupt apparatus of the State.
Bernie, to be fair, is a more errant knight than most, not least because he serves the Nazi administration, and never more so than in the 10th Bernie Gunther offering, The Lady from Zagreb (Quercus, €28.50), which opens in Berlin in 1942 with Bernie a reluctant speaker at the International Convention on Crime.
Subsequently commissioned by Joseph Goebbels to investigate the whereabouts of a missing man who was last heard of joining a monastery in Croatia, Bernie finds himself negotiating the killing fields of the Balkans and witnessing the worst excesses of the genocidal Ustaše.
Kerr has Gunther mockingly reference Sherlock Holmes on a number of occasions, and the overall mood is enjoyably knockabout Chandler, but the juxtaposition of Gunther’s gallows humour and the bitingly satirical undertone (such as when Gunther is seconded to the Nazis’ “War Crimes Commission”) lend themselves to a bracing fatalism as Kerr explores the darkest corners of the human psyche and what Gunther describes as the impossibility of a restoration of the moral order.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House)