Watching the detectives’ styles

Declan Burke rounds up the new crime fiction


The crime novel may depend on violence for its narrative impetus, but fire needn’t always be fought with fire. Jeffery Deaver’s The Kill Room (Hodder & Stoughton, €15.99) is his 10th novel to feature the cerebral quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhymes, who here learns the hard way that an unthinking reliance on weaponry can cause the mind to disastrously oversimplify a complex situation.

Opening in the Bahamas with the assassination of a US citizen, an outspoken opponent of American foreign policy in Central and South America, the novel finds Rhyme and his team commissioned by a New York assistant district attorney to investigate the unlawful killing, as the “kill order” was issued in the state of New York by the National Intelligence and Operations Service.

Deaver might well be expected to rest on his laurels at this point in his career, but his 30th novel is refreshingly ambitious, as his labyrinthine twists lead the reader ever further into a fog of ambiguity about misdirected patriotism, the deliberate misreading of intelligence, drone warfare, whistle-blowing and free speech.

Fred Vargas is a three-time winner of the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger award for crime fiction in translation, and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec (Harvill Secker, €18.75) is the eighth in her Commissaire Adamsberg series (and her 13th novel in total). A Paris-based police detective, Adamsberg is lured to the Ordebec region of Normandy by lurid tales of a medieval ghost army that has “seized” a number of locals, who are subsequently murdered.

Adamsberg is a rather whimsical creation, a man who tends to put more faith in instinct and lateral thinking than he does in such fripperies as physical evidence, but even he refuses to believe that an occult force is responsible for the murder spree. Fans of grittily realistic crime fiction may baulk at the offbeat tone and Adamsberg’s irreverent approach to policing, but Vargas has a deft touch when it comes to characterisation and setting (the story is crisply translated by Siân Reynolds), and the backdrop of idyllic villages, dank forests and cursed “ghost riders” gives it all the beguiling quality of a Charles Perrault fairy tale.

Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (Faber and Faber, €18.60) makes an interesting counterpoint to Commissaire Adamsberg, not least because Claire DeWitt, its private eye, is heavily influenced by the (fictional) French criminologist Jacques Silette, a man who was, according to his classic manual, Détection, as likely to employ karma as a magnifying glass in his investigations.

Gran’s second outing for her unique private detective, which is set in San Francisco, finds DeWitt investigating the suspicious death of her former lover Paul Casablancas, a musician. Once his body is discovered, Gran abandons any pretence at a traditional crime-fiction narrative, instead bending the genre’s tropes out of shape as the charmingly idiosyncratic DeWitt stumbles along to the beat of a drum only she can hear.

As with Vargas, readers who prefer a conventional narrative might find themselves a little frustrated by the wilfully opaque storytelling, as in the following not-untypical quote: “A clue is a word in another language, and mysteries speak the language of dreams. Mysteries speak the alchemical language of the birds.” But readers who crave a self-consciously poetic variation on the classic crime novel will find much to enjoy here.

Set in Moscow in the 1930s, The Twelfth Department (Mantle, €15.99) is the third outing for William Ryan’s increasingly impressive Captain Korolev series. Korolev, a police investigator, is co-opted by the NKVD when a scientist with strong political connections to the party (and possibly Stalin himself) is shot dead, but his task – complicated by the disappearance of his young son, Yuri – becomes a wander through a metaphorical hall of mirrors where notions such as truth and justice mean whatever the party wants them to mean.

There’s an Orwellian influence to the manipulation of language and meaning in The Twelfth Department, while Korolev’s quest to uncover the “facts” of his investigation ensures that he soon resembles a pawn kicked around the board by warring superiors.

The geographical setting and political backdrop are compelling enough, but Korolev is a fascinating character in his own right, an army veteran of “the German War” who acknowledges the poisonous nature of the regime he serves even as he clings to the hope that its propaganda might some day chime with reality.

The winner of the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year award in 2012, for The End of the Wasp Season, Denise Mina returns with The Red Road (Orion, €14.99), the fourth in her series of Glasgow-set novels to feature Det Insp Alex Morrow. A pragmatic woman who bitterly resents the overlap of her personal and professional lives (the fact that her half-brother is a notorious Glasgow gangster causes her no end of grief), Morrow is delivering evidence in court when she discovers that her case tangentially touches on another murder, one with roots in 1999, when a young girl knifed two men to death on the same night.

A brilliantly plotted tale that segues between past and present, The Red Road is a “tartan noir” police procedural to rival Ian Rankin’s best work, as Mina blends the harsh realities facing Glasgow’s underprivileged kids with the salubrious world inhabited by the city’s legal and financial wizards. The chief appeal, however, is Alex Morrow herself, a meticulously crafted character of depth and substance who succeeds in a patriarchal environment by virtue of her intelligence, persistence and humanity.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His most recent novel is Slaughter’s Hound, published by Liberties Press.

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