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Crime fiction: a mother’s vengeance, the forensics of Agatha Christie and more

New books by Alison Gaylin, WC Ryan, Janice Hallet, Stephen Spotswood and Carla Valentine

In the first chapter of Alison Gaylin's The Collective (Orion, £16.99), Camille Gardner disrupts a fancy ceremony at a Gramercy Park private club, where the young man who, five years previously, raped and murdered Camille's daughter Emily is to be presented with a prestigious award for public service. "Her death didn't change you," she cries. "Murderer!"

Later that evening, grateful to Reena, the sympathetic police officer who books her in at the local station, who remembers her case, and who has a daughter herself, Camille reflects on her kindness: “as though there’s a secret order in this world of which I am a member, and Reena is as well, and that secret, special sisterhood transcends her uniform and my handcuffs and binds us tighter than anything, even the air that keeps us alive. We are the mothers of girls.”

The Collective speaks urgently to the present moment; it is absolutely essential

As it turns out, there is a secret order in Camille’s world, a network of women called The Collective, who know each other only by numbers, and who conspire to avenge the unpunished murders of their children in what amounts to an elaborate version of Bruno Antony’s “criss-cross”. The thrill of the chase and the exhilaration of revenge gradually gives way to misgivings and unease as the perfectly paced action models and rehearses time-honoured ethical arguments around transgression, atonement and the insidious moral drift enabled by subsuming individual conscience to the will of the group.

The Collective is a meticulously plotted page-turner, ferociously animated by Euripidean levels of female rage and resolve. At times I felt the all-consuming force of the high concept left insufficient room for the kind of rich sociological and psychological texture at which Gaylin excels. But this is a book that speaks urgently to the present moment; it is absolutely essential.


The Winter Guest (Zaffre, £12.99) is the second historical mystery Irish author William Ryan has published as WC Ryan, and it is in mood, atmosphere and period a companion piece to its predecessor, A House of Ghosts, but this time with an Irish setting.

It is January 1921 and we are in Kilcolgan House, the crumbling seat of the troubled Prendeville family, situated on a rise overlooking the Atlantic coast and the surrounding, vividly rendered countryside, where fires rage following a raid by an IRA flying column. Instead of killing Major Abercrombie, the much loathed commander of the local RIC auxiliary division, two other men are shot; afterwards, Maud Prendeville – eldest daughter of the house, ex Cumman na mBan and a fabled hero of the 1916 Rising– is also found dead.

Tom Harkin, formerly a captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and now an IRA intelligence officer, is sent (in the guise of an insurance claims agent) to investigate. Harkin has history with the family: he fought alongside Arthur Prendeville, who died in France; he was Maud’s romantic partner when they were students at Trinity; and he used to work as parliamentary secretary for Lord Kilcolgan’s brother, an MP who encouraged Irishmen to volunteer for the British army in the cause of Home Rule, and who is now involved in gun smuggling for the IRA.

Ryan deftly sketches the contours of a society where friends and mortal enemies live at close quarters, and explores those shifting, volatile allegiances with subtlety

The Winter Guest works superbly on several levels. As a mystery it unfolds in well-constructed, satisfyingly dramatised scenes, with sharp dialogue and an especially nice line in flirtatious banter (there is room for romance amid the carnage). Ryan deftly sketches the contours of a society where friends and mortal enemies live at close quarters, and explores those shifting, volatile allegiances with subtlety and nuance.

The book also has fun with history: the sophisticated Harkin, who is prone to fainting spells and to supernatural visions, has more than a touch of Ernie O’Malley, while his blunt, cynical, phlegmatically violent sidekick Vincent Bourke is a Dublin accented Dan Breen. This is a most welcome winter guest indeed, to be greeted by the fire with drink in hand.

Murder Under Her Skin (Wildfire, £16.99) takes up where Stephen Spotswood's sparkling debut left off, with circus runaway Willowjean Parker, lead investigator for 1946 New York's most successful private detective: legendary, three-piece houndstooth suit sporting Lillian Pentecost. Following a splendidly staged courtroom opening, the action transfers briskly by train to small town Stoppard, Virginia, where Hart and Halloway's Travelling Circus and Sideshow, Willowjean's alma mater for five years, is now berthed.

The circus’s amazing tattooed woman, Ruby Donner, has been stabbed to death, and Russian sword-swallower and knife-thrower Valentin Kalishenko is chief suspect. The wayward, volatile Kalishenko was Willowjean’s circus mentor, while Ruby was her surrogate big sister; despite her grief and shock at Ruby’s death, and Kalishenko’s inability to deny the murder (he was blackout drunk and remembers nothing), Pentecost and Parker commit to the investigation. Stoppard is Ruby’s childhood home, and between the local community and the tight-knit, rivalrous Hart and Halloway family, Murder Under Her Skin operates like a closed circle mystery with an unusually exotic cast of attendant characters.

Spotswood fluently blends vintage mystery and noir with a dash of old Hollywood (his wisecracking, side-of-the-mouth dialogue is first rate), and the glossy, deep focus action feels like it is spooling out on screen in Academy ratio, with character, action and nicely chosen detail expertly marshalled. Willowjean Parker is a beguiling narrator, a badly behaved good old girl with a smart mouth, keen intelligence and a heart of gold.

Early on, raw with grief, she compares Ruby to a glimpse she once had of Susan Hayward in Times Square, who “seemed to be alive in a way that the yokels surrounding her couldn’t match”. That’s Willowjean too, “a Technicolor girl in a black-and-white world”.

Valentine examines the influence of contemporary criminal cases on the ways Christie employed forensic techniques in her work

Janice Hallet's The Appeal was one of 2021's stand-out successes, chiming with the increased popularity of the traditional mystery. The Twyford Code (Viper, £14.99) centres around a puzzle veteran children's author Edith Twyford may have left in the margins of a copy of one of her books. The lonely schoolboy who finds it, Steven Smith, shows it to his teacher, Miss Isles, and his imperfect memories of the trip to Twyford's house Isles leads him and his fellow classmates on – and her mysterious disappearance thereafter – form the basis of the mystery, which is narrated onto an iPhone by Smith and transferred to the page by transcription software.

Quirky, ingenious and spellbindingly complicated, The Twyford Code’s undeniable storytelling verve was undermined for me by the laboriously unreliable nature of the transcripts: “mustard” for “must have”; “missiles” for Miss Isles; and worst of all, swear words marked thus: “s[EXPLICIT]t”; “f[EXPLICIT]k”. This technique might have been effective, if somewhat irritatingly twee, for 30 pages; at 10 times that length it grows tiresome.

The secondary literature around Agatha Christie’s oeuvre grows apace. The essentials include Laura Thompson’s biography, John Curran’s Complete Secret Notebooks, Robert Barnard’s A Talent to Deceive, Tom Adams Uncovered (a collection of the classic 1960s and ’70s Fontana covers) and Kathryn Harkup’s A Is For Arsenic

Carla Valentine's fascinating and authoritative Murder Isn't Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie (Sphere, £16.99) will surely take a place on this shelf. Valentine casts a trained pathology technician's eye across Christie's scene-of-the-crime strategies, analyses how she deals with fingerprints, bloodstains, ballistics, handwriting and toxicology, and examines the influence of contemporary criminal cases on the ways Christie employed forensic techniques in her work – and the disturbing inspiration her work has given to real-life murderers.