Big hitters back on the streets


CRIME BEAT:STUART NEVILLE’S third novel, Stolen Souls(Harvill Secker, £12.99), is a less political animal than his previous offerings, The Twelve(2009) and Collusion(2010), both of which dealt explicitly with former paramilitaries still operating in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. Here the criminal backdrop is the banal evil of sex-trafficking: Galya Petrova slashes a man’s throat to escape her enforced prostitution, but Belfast on Christmas Eve offers cold comfort to a foreign national on the run.

Eschewing the supernatural elements of his previous offerings, Neville constructs a no-frills thriller that barrels along at a ferocious pace, pausing only to offer the occasional nod to 1970s paranoid classics such as William Goldman’s Marathon Man(1974). Belfast looms large as a character in itself, its warren of streets simultaneously offering threat and the hope of salvation in a novel that explores not only the dark heart of the Irish sex trade but also the twisted motivations of the men who so brutally exploit women.

First encountered in 1997’s Wire in the Blood, the charismatic serial killer Jacko Vance returns in Val McDermid’s 25th novel, The Retribution(Little, Brown, £18.99). Jacko escapes from prison to wreak his revenge on those who put him away, the oddball pairing of DCI Carol Jordan and criminal profiler Tony Hill, but despite the potential for blood-letting the novel is very much driven by the perverseness of Tony and Carol’s relationship, the “strange quadrille” that characterises their unusual emotional and psychological bond.

Framed by a police-procedural format that provides the forceful narrative momentum, the tale is nonetheless a subtle exploration of all-too-human frailties. It’s a tribute to McDermid’s skill as a storyteller that she deliberately creates a trio of central characters who are essentially incapable of conventional empathy yet still manages to sustain reader sympathy right through to the coldly brutal finale.

The End of the Wasp Season(Orion, £7.99) is the ninth novel from the Scottish writer Denise Mina, and her second police procedural to feature the Glaswegian DS Alex Morrow. Hard-nosed, cynical and efficient, Morrow refuses to make allowances for her pregnancy as she investigates the violent murder of a high-priced prostitute who was kicked to death in her own home.

The third-person narrative allows Mina to inform the reader of the killers’ identity from the very beginning, and the novel is as engaged with exploring their complex motivations as it is with fleshing out Morrow’s conflict of interests when she discovers that an old friend’s sons are implicated in the case. The terse prose is ostensibly functional, but Mina’s sleight of hand is such that she has the capacity to turn the entire tale on its head with a single, telling phrase, as she does on a number of occasions in a hugely satisfying read.

The recent movie Drivewas based on a novel by James Sallis, whose latest novel, his 14th, is The Killer Is Dying(No Exit Press, £7.99). Here Sallis interweaves three stories: a semilucid hitman determined to finish what he already knows will be his last job; a cop determined to stop it happening; and a young boy, left to fend for himself by feckless parents, who finds himself caught up in a terrifying situation. Sallis is considered something of a writers’ writer in the US, and The Killer Is Dyingis a masterclass in characterisation, plotting and the evocation of a small town’s quiet desperation. Employing a dense prose style, and utilising elements of hard-boiled noir, conventional police procedural and supernaturalism that draws heavily on the half-glimpsed imagery of dreams, Sallis creates a quirky meditation on death that is as unique as it is profound.

Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything(Picador, £7.99) is another unusual offering, a novel about the abduction of a pubescent girl by a male neighbour as seen through the eyes of Lizzie, the best friend of the abducted girl. This is Abbott’s fifth novel, and it’s a superb piece of characterisation, which is given an added dimension courtesy of Lizzie’s entirely frank account of her growing sexual obsession with the father of the abducted girl. It’s an unsettling tale, as the reader is torn between Lizzie’s endearing naivety and her beautifully detailed reminiscing about her idyllic suburban life, and the darkness that lurks behind the apparently normal facades of her neighbourhood, which Lizzie insists on probing. Laced with poetic asides, and shot through with black humour and a bleak acceptance of the dangers that accompany a young woman’s puberty, The End of Everythingis one of the most compelling novels you’ll read this year.

Those Lee Child fans who object to Tom Cruise’s forthcoming portrayal of the iconic (and rather tall) Jack Reacher on the big screen can comfort themselves with The Affair (Bantam Press, £18.99), Child’s 16th novel. A prequel to Child’s debut, Killing Floor(1997), the story takes place six months before the events detailed in that novel as Reacher, a former military policeman, records the reasons why he left the army to become a vigilante drifter. Posted undercover to a small Mississippi town to investigate whether the murder of a local woman is connected to the army base nearby, Reacher discovers that he is a pawn in a game being played by Washington politicians.

Child’s customary languidness belies a furious pace as he blends whodunnit with whydunnit, the tale frequently enlivened by altercations and eruptions of violence, all of it described in a deadpan tone that disguises a bone-dry, laconic sense of humour.

A fascinating tale for Lee Child fans who have always wondered about the origins of Reacher’s peripatetic wanderings, The Affairis an excellent place to start for readers who might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Absolute Zero Cool