Running out of letters, running out of steam
CRIMEBEAT:V IS FOR VENGEANCE (Mantle, £17.99) is the 22nd offering in Sue Grafton’s “alphabet mysteries” series, which is set in the fictional Californian town of Santa Teresa during the 1980s and features the private eye Kinsey Milhone.
This book opens with Kinsey witnessing, and reporting, a shoplifter in action; when the woman subsequently dies in an apparent suicide, her boyfriend commissions Kinsey to investigate the circumstances of the death.
Writing her protagonist in the first person, Grafton switches to third-person narration for a pair of parallel storylines, which feature a woman who discovers that her wealthy husband is having an affair and an upmarket loan shark being investigated by a slew of law-enforcement agencies.
Kinsey Milhone is an iconic figure in the world of the contemporary crime novel, a feminine, feminist private eye in the mould of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and a tough-talking, no-nonsense woman who prizes justice above all other values as she prowls the mean streets of Santa Teresa (in reality, Santa Barbara).
There’s an admirable realism to Kinsey’s methodical investigation – it being 1988, the detective has no access to mobile phones and internet searches, for example, which results in a lot of shoe leather being worn out – but it’s telling that the pair of stories running parallel to Kinsey’s investigation are the most vibrantly rendered aspects of the novel. Kinsey Milhone is now 38, and the weary tone of her delivery suggests that she’s running out of steam as quickly as Grafton is running out of letters of the alphabet.
From veteran to debutant, and Parker Bilal’s The Golden Scales (Bloomsbury, £11.99). Set in 1998, this private-eye story has for its protagonist a former Sudanese police inspector called Makana, exiled from his country and now grubbing a living from the bottom-feeding wretches of Cairo. Commissioned by one of Egypt’s wealthiest men to find a missing football star, Makana gets sucked into a grim underworld of seedy film-makers, desperate glamour models, Russian gangsters, heroin addicts and Muslim extremists.
Parker Bilal is the crime-writing nom-de-plume of the literary author Jamal Mahjoub, who paints a vivid picture of an effervescent Cairo, a city that could have been tailor-made as a crime-fiction backdrop. In Makana, Bilal has created a private detective who ticks all the usual boxes of doggedness, valour and ragged nobility, but it’s his backstory, and the political ferment in neighbouring Sudan, that mark him out as a fascinating protagonist.
The tale itself follows the conventions of the genre, as Makana uncovers the links that tie Cairo’s criminal element to the power-brokers at the apex of polite society, but the setting and characterisation are sufficient to make The Golden Scales an auspicious debut.
The Glass Room (Macmillan, £16.99) is the fifth Vera Stanhope mystery written by Ann Cleeves, and her 25th book. A bluff, uncompromising Northumberland woman, Vera is here more broadsword than scalpel as she dissects the aspirations of a group of authors attending a creative-writing workshop, during the course of which a literary critic is murdered. Cleeves is very obviously having a little postmodern fun at the expense of her more pretentious peers – the authors were engaged in writing crime stories at the time of the murder, and the killer leaves a series of literary red herrings for Vera and the reader to decipher – but, overall, The Glass Room is a solid and enjoyably old-fashioned police-procedural yarn that harks back to the “locked-room mysteries” of the UK’s golden age, with Vera in the role of a significantly less dapper Hercule Poirot.
Kevin Brophy’s third novel, The Berlin Crossing (Headline Review, £12.99), opens in Brandenburg in 1993, not long after the Berlin Wall has fallen. Michael Ritter, an English teacher, has just lost his job, being politically suspect in the newly unified Germany for his pro-GDR attitude, which means he has plenty of time to embark on a quest to discover the meaning of his dying mother’s last words. His journey takes the novel back to 1962 and the height of the cold war, when a young Irishman, Roland Feldmann, was blackmailed by MI5 into travelling to East Berlin. The time and place will be familiar to fans of John le Carré and Eric Ambler, but while Brophy is happy to employ the tropes of the spy thriller, The Berlin Crossing is very much a personal tale of one man’s investigation of what it means to gain a new identity, be it that of an individual or a state. The love story at the heart of the novel may lack credibility at times, but Brophy’s labyrinthine exploration of the human heart is given a poignant twist by the repetition of Pontius Pilate’s timeless query, “What is truth?”
Crete is the setting for Paul Johnston’s 13th novel, The Silver Stain (Crème de la Crime, £19.99), which sees a film producer commission Johnston’s Athens-based private eye, Alex Mavros, to find a movie star’s personal assistant. A straightforward assignment, but Mavros quickly discovers that the events being depicted on the film set – the Nazi invasion of Crete in 1941 – have contemporary resonances that prove lethal.
A Scottish author living in Greece, writing about a detective who is half-Scottish, half-Greek, Johnston employs an observer who is ideally placed to make an outsider’s caustic observations about modern Crete, yet he knows the terrain well enough to give the setting a vividly authentic feel. The island’s time-honoured love-hate relationship with law and order, allied to pacy narrative and deadpan black humour courtesy of a knowingly archetypal private eye, all delivered in deceptively elegant prose, make The Silver Stain an early contender for one of the best private-detective novels of the year.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is Absolute Zero Cool (Liberties Press)