“According to Hello! magazine, La Kastellana is the chicest of the chic this year. The New Capri at last.” Preparations are under way for a “bal masqué” at the castle to honour the duke’s 70th birthday. Mercedes, island born and bred, will take time out from serving at her mother’s ferry side restaurant to deal with breathless English socialite Tatiana Meade and her monstrously obese Daddy, who are arriving on the boat; the rest of the exclusive party are coming “on the heli”, dropping names and notions — cryotherapy, George and Amal, Denpasar, Giancarlo, Pavel, Upper West Side, Darling — like so much cosmopolitan confetti. The party will consist of several rich middle-aged men and four barely legal teenage girls. Forty years ago, 12-year-old Mercedes was paid to be Tatiana’s friend for the season; sometimes a stray memory of that time surfaces, of four teenage girls arriving and only three leaving, but it is soon overwhelmed by memories of the death by drowning of her sister, Donatella. The Island of Lost Girls (Sphere, £16.99) is on one level a ripped-from-the-headlines, by Maxwell out of Epstein saga, and no author is better suited to such grim material than Alex Marwood, who has a gift for dramatising the most irredeemably toxic characters and situations.
This meticulously plotted tale tacks deftly between past and present and the unfolding revelations feel both shocking and inevitable. But Marwood is not content simply to present La Kastellana as a sunny place for shady people: she gives us a foundational myth for the island, of the sexually transgressive girls who were tossed off the cliffs to resurface as Sirenas, and of the power of the old Solteronas, the duke’s “virginal attack dogs”, who, once a year, on the church steps, ritually humiliate and scourge a woman who in their judgment has misbehaved; these shamed Sirenas are henceforth shunned by all. Still in full spate in the 1980s, these complicit handmaidens of misogyny are routed at Donatella’s funeral by her mother in a confrontation of shattering emotional force: beautiful and terrifying, staged with great pictorial flair, it is like a scene from a Lorca play.
A Season in Exile (Little, Brown, £16.99) marks the welcome return of Oliver Harris’s reliably reckless sleuth Nick Belsey. The Englishman arrives in Mexico city on a Saturday night with the suit on his back, £26 and several cards of dubious credit: “his life as he knew it was over”. What follows is a bravura sequence of existential noir, with forward motion the urgent goal: squeeze some juice out of the cards, hire a car, exchange it for a less traceable vehicle and pick up an attractive hitchhiker he doesn’t trust. “He didn’t give a f**k. He had eighty dollars, a Maserati and quite possibly an international arrest warrant. She could only enhance the situation.” After she duly robs him of passport, money and Maserati and leaves him covered in blood, he catches a ride to the coast with a partially blind Jehovah’s Witness. A family on a quiet beach take him in to recuperate and he gradually finds the strength first to help with the fishing and soon, with the impeccable logic of a dream, to set up a ramshackle cocktail bar on the beach for passing tourists. And then the men from the cartel show up, searching for Nick Belsey.
Cutting between Mexico and London, where DI Kirsty Craik is warned that she will be dead by Christmas if she doesn’t give her former colleague and lover up, A Season in Exile is an intelligent, brilliantly plotted and paced thriller whose chief theme — police corruption in the Met — could not be more topical. DI Craik is a well-drawn, complex, thoughtful protagonist — I especially liked her observation that an affair is like working undercover, that the life of deception “seemed to provide what real life was missing” — but the scenes involving Nick Belsey have a poetic texture and a turbulent, anarchic verve that set them apart. If you need to feed your Mick Herron habit, Oliver Harris could be just the fix; he is class A.
Two of last year’s standout titles — Dream Girl and The Plot — were novels about problematic male novelists; Niko Wolf’s Birthday Girl (Hodder Studio, £18.99), while not quite in their league, makes a persuasive case for what might just be the next big sub-genre. Jonathan Dainty lost his wife Maddie 25 years ago, when she stepped into a vintage E-type Jaguar with a man she didn’t know and vanished. Now he is a best-selling mystery novelist whose Ocean Falls books have become a long-running TV series, his agent thinks he should write a memoir because his work has gone off the boil, his long-time girlfriend wants to marry, his troubled son may be a drug dealer — and he begins, Vertigo like, to catch sight of his dead wife in the street. Wolf is a screenwriter and the book has a tightly honed cinematic structure as it moves fluently between present and past. I relished the title of Jonathan’s first, unpublished “literary” novel (The Insistence of Mist) and there’s a funny scene where a drunk Jonathan, unsettled by the news that a fellow author has just been dropped by his publisher and agent, works his way through the back covers of his books and sadly realises that he has been writing the same formulaic novel for years.
Crookedwood (Hachette Ireland, £13.99) is Irish author Liza Costello’s second book. Sarah, living the dream in a Dublin restaurant with a promotion to sous chef in store, comes home to her small town at her mother’s request to join her objections to a new development. However, Sarah is having an affair with one of the developers and speaks in its favour, much to her mother’s disapproval. The novel works best in its early stages, when all is rancour and rumour and recollected small town slights. Costello is an accomplished stylist with a flair for setting and atmosphere, and in Sarah she has created an engaging protagonist whose pulsing narrative energy makes us her willing accomplice.
Set in 2007 there are some nice High Tiger details — vast couches in huge livingrooms, gardens of rock and soil — although the Mammy too squeamish to tell her daughter about periods, the closeted gay uncle and the improbably high number of women traumatised by teenage sexual experience lend a more antique air to proceedings. With rather too many revelations left to a melodramatic denouement, the ending feels overcrowded, but the quality of the writing makes this a satisfying read and Liza Costello a writer to watch.
The Family Remains (Century, £16.99) is best-selling author Lisa Jewell’s return visit to the Lambs after the success of The Family Upstairs. Opening with the discovery in the Thames of a bag of bones, and following up with Rachel Gold, who fields an early morning call about the death of her husband, news she considers briefly before promptly falling back to sleep, Jewell’s storytelling is never less than enthralling across this dazzlingly complex, multivoiced saga. Henry Lamb is a delirious, Ripleyesque creation, and I was absorbed by the nuanced rendering of passionate, self-excoriating, poor little rich girl Rachel, perhaps the most complex and engaging character here. This is a fiendishly well plotted, compulsively readable novel, teeming with secrets and lies, legacies and losses, with life, old life itself.