Will a more affecting psychological thriller appear this year?

Declan Burke reviews the best new crime fiction including Colette McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind

 

Crime novels tend to end with the guilty punished and justice served, for the very good reason that fiction allows for scenarios that real life doesn’t always deliver. Colette McBeth’s second novel, The Life I Left Behind (Headline Review, €16.99), takes a significantly different approach to the consequences of a serious crime.

Melody Pieterson is celebrated as a “survivor”, a woman who not only fought off her violent attacker but also saw him punished for his crime with a conviction and a jail sentence. But the experience has utterly changed Melody, leaving her insular and terrified.

The news that her attacker has struck again, after being released from prison – this time he has killed a young woman called Eve – only heightens her sense of isolation.

Melody’s story is but half the tale here, however: another perspective is provided by Eve, a campaigning journalist who speaks to us from beyond the grave about her murder, how she believes that Melody’s attacker was framed and the methods she was using to clear his name in the weeks before she was killed.

The ghostly presence of Eve might suggest otherwise, but The Life I Left Behind is less a supernatural thriller than it is a psychological investigation into the damage wreaked by cruelty, emotional and physical brutality, and murder.

McBeth, formerly herself a journalist, is unsentimental and clear-eyed about the immediate and lingering consequences of violence on victims and their families and friends, yet her direct, unfussy style evolves into a heartbreakingly poignant tale. If a more affecting psychological thriller is published this year, it will be a very good book indeed.

The opening of a new casino gives the depressed Pennsylvania town of Penns River a welcome economic boost in Dana King’s Grind Joint (Stark House, €9.99), even if some of the town’s more upstanding citizens are concerned about the origins of the venture’s start-up capital.

When the body of a drug dealer is discovered dumped on the casino’s steps just before its grand opening, it appears that their worst suspicions are confirmed: the casino will serve as a “grind joint”, a clearing house for dirty money.

But when detectives Ben “Doc” Dougherty and Willie Grabek begin their investigation they quickly find themselves stymied when confronted by vested interests that include mobsters, politicians, former spooks and high-ranking members of their own department.

Rooted in the Slavic ethnic heritage of western Pennsylvania, Dana King’s style – this is his fourth novel – has been compared to the work of the late Elmore Leonard, and it’s easy to see why: Grind Joint is a compelling tale of small-town gangsters and cops rooted in vernacular dialogue and blackly comic in the way the bad guys’ ambitions easily exceed their abilities. Grind Joint reads more like a proto-Leonard story, one more reminiscent of George V Higgins, whose The Friends of Eddie Coyle exerted a major influence on Leonard’s style.

There is a chilly and occasionally unsettling quality of realism to King’s unflinching appraisal of the devastating impact of economic downturn on the small-town United States, which leads its protagonists to perform increasingly convoluted moral gymnastics.

As its title suggests, there’s more than a hint of the cautionary fable to Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea (Hodder, €11.90). Set in London in 1727, it features Tom Hawkins, a gentleman rake who gambles his way into the infamous Marshalsea debtors’ prison.

Faced with appalling conditions, Hawkins agrees to buy his freedom by investigating the circumstances behind the murder of a former inmate, Captain Roberts – but in the Marshalsea everyone is a potential murderer, and few will take kindly to the idea of Hawkins uncovering the prison’s secrets.

Laced with profanity and soaked in the filth and grime of the period, The Devil in the Marshalsea is a delightfully irreverent historical mystery. The lurid cast of characters, some of whom are based on real-life historical figures, represent a cross section of the period’s social hierarchy.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the most fascinating character is the prison itself: Hodgson’s fabulous descriptions lead us through a world within a world where inmates have access to an abundance of food, booze, drugs and sex – providing they can pay for the privilege.

Blending mystery, the supernatural and a sharply detailed account of the wretched jail itself, The Devil in the Marshalsea is a wonderfully evocative statement of intent from a very promising debut novelist.

The fourth in Adrian McKinty’s award- winning series of police procedurals featuring Seán Duffy, a Catholic detective serving in the RUC during the 1980s, Gun Street Girl (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99), opens in 1985, as the news of the impending Anglo-Irish Agreement sends Northern Ireland into a turmoil of strikes, riots and violence.

“How can you investigate a murder in a time of incipient civil war?” Duffy wonders as he attends the scene of what appears to be a professional double killing of “civilians”.

That conundrum is quickly left behind as Duffy finds himself investigating the possibility that the murders are connected to the theft of Javelin missile systems from the Shorts manufacturing plant, which may well implicate rogue members of an American secret service.

The claustrophobic tension of the previous novels is replaced here by a surprisingly jocular tone, as Duffy resorts to absurdist humour in order to preserve his sanity in an increasingly bleak Northern Ireland. “Out here,” he tells us, “on the edge of the dying British Empire, farce is the only mode of narrative discourse that makes any sense at all.”

Gun Street Girl may well be a comically implausible tale, but its roots in historical fact renders it a superb satire of its time and place.

Declan Burke’s current novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House)

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