Subscriber OnlyBooks

Crime fiction: A special treat for traditional mystery fans

New titles by Nicola Upson, Lisa Lutz, Mick Herron, Jo Spain and Christobel Kent

It is late August, 1939, and beneath a full moon that "made a nonsense of the blackout", the Suffolk countryside "seemed suspended in time, as if the fields – like the men who worked them – were holding their breath, waiting to see which way the world would turn". Dear Little Corpses (Faber & Faber, £12.99), the 10th entry in Nicola Upson's series featuring Golden Age author Josephine Tey as detective, and is an intricately plotted, utterly absorbing village mystery.

Josephine’s hopes for a few tranquil days before her actress partner, Marta, departs for Hollywood are dashed, first by the arrival of twice the expected number of evacuees, and then by the disappearance of a five-year-old girl; when another child vanishes, the community is riven with suspicion and fear. Using multiple points of view, Upson deftly animates the tensions and rivalries across the village and within selected households; the claustrophobic, suspenseful atmosphere in the Herron house is especially well evoked, with one sister wondering of the other “how two people could have such different defences against the same memory”.

A special treat for traditional mystery fans is the arrival of Margery Allingham to judge the village fete; she and Josephine get along famously, and in the acknowledgments Upson suggests they may team up again. Balancing an elegant lightness of touch with psychological acuity and depth, Upson delivers a captivating novel that builds to a shattering conclusion. This is a series to rank alongside Andrew Taylor’s post-second World War-set Lydmouth books; I can think of no higher praise.

There are at least two murder investigations in The Accomplice (Titan, £8.99). The fiendishly well-plotted action unfolds over a 20-year span, but the focus of Lisa Lutz's attention in this wry, playful, off-centre saga is the unconventional enchantment that binds its two lead characters together: Owen Mann, golden boy manqué, and damaged, secretive Luna Grey. They meet at university and fall for each other, although they never have a romantic relationship; years later, married to other people, each still has "no framework for living without the other person".


Lutz writes brilliantly about young people, and the sequences in Markham University (“a safe haven for lazy stoners who wanted a break from life”) are superbly cast, set and staged. I enjoyed the scenes in the Berkshires with Owen’s charming, tony, roilingly alcoholic parents, who “act out Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? every night”.

There is always a sense with a Lisa Lutz novel that artful misdirection is not just confined to the plot: something is happening, and we don’t entirely know what it is, but the pleasure in trying to pin it down is considerable. With a flavour of Wes Anderson and a spritz of Alan Rudolph, this whimsical psychological thriller grips and teases in equal measure.

“As the PM’s enforcer, Sparrow wasn’t as high profile as his predecessor had been – it would have been challenging to maintain that level of unpopularity without barbecuing an infant on live television – but those in the know recognised him as a home-grown Napoleon: nasty, British and short.”

Mick Herron's funhouse mirror vision of the British security state resumes in Bad Actors (Baskerville, £18.99), and all of the requisite elements are assembled: the return of former MI5 First Desk Claude Whelan to investigate the disappearance of a key Downing Street think tank member; the unexpected and under-the-radar arrival in London of the head of the Russian secret service; and some unauthorised, strenuously violent shenanigans from the Slow Horses. Not to mention a slow-burning subplot involving a superhot Dorset Naga chilli pepper.

The vertiginously cantilevered action is expertly engineered, the shade of River Cartwright haunts Slough House, and London is vividly rendered (“the colours had deepened with the hours darkening, the washed-out reds and faded blues looking richer than ever, the greys and browns an earthier, muddier soup”). And the insider aperçus continue to delight:

“All those decades of the arms race, and it turned out there was no greater damage you could inflict on a state than ensure it was led by an idiot.

“This performance was largely due to the Prime Minister himself, whose sole qualification for the job had been the widespread expectation that he’d achieve it. Having done so, he was clearly dumbstruck by the demands of office.”

I can’t be alone in finding Roddy Ho a tiresomely unfunny creation, and there’s a 20-page reintroduction of the band near the start that delays the action to no purpose. But this highly topical, beautifully written, indecently entertaining book maintains the impeccably high standards Herron has set for this essential series.

Jo Spain's The Last to Disappear (Quercus, £14.99) unfolds in the Finnish winter holiday resort of Koppe, in northern Lapland. The body of Alex Evans's sister Vicky has been pulled from an icy lake and Alex travels from London, where he meets Agatha Koskinen, the young detective in charge. Unimpressed with Agatha's small-town status, Alex, whose job as a lobbyist has imbued in him an unappealing blend of impatience and entitlement, sets about influencing the murder investigation.

Meanwhile, a separate timeline tracks Kaya, pregnant by her married lover, as she navigates the currents of her own unhappy marriage. Three missing women in 20 years suggest the possibility of a serial killer; Vicky’s co-workers inevitably fall under suspicion also.

This is an ingeniously constructed and paced production, with a striking sense of place, nuanced characters that are given room to breathe and grow and all manner of nicely chosen detail. When Alex mistakes Nicolas, a Russian guide, for a Finn, he apologises, saying all the accents are blending into one. “Netflix English, we call it,” Nicolas replies.

Building to an incendiary, skilfully contrived, genuinely unexpected series of revelations, The Last to Disappear is a compelling, immensely satisfying crime novel.

Marsha, who practically lives at the golf club, thinks her timid, plump daughter Sukie is still a virgin at 27. Last year Marsha and Sukie’s father forgot to tell Sukie they were going to Bermuda for Christmas. Sukie is lonely and knows that, when it comes to dating, she needs to get real, to forget about her comfort zone. Which is why she agrees to a short holiday on a Greek island with Jake, an older man she has known for a month. They’re not going to sleep together – not until she’s ready.

At the airport Heather spies the man who raped her when she was a schoolgirl preparing to board a flight with a shy-looking younger woman, and without hesitation, buys a ticket to the same destination. And so it begins.

In Deep Water (Sphere, £20.99), by Christobel Kent, is framed by multigenerational sexual violence and written in an intense, hallucinatory style. Kent builds a textured island world, a persuasive mix of beauty and squalor, and infuses each location with brooding menace.

The plot relies a little too heavily on dead phone batteries and imperfect coverage, and Sukie sometimes feels like a repressed naïf from a 1960s novel, too fastidious to swear or to speak the name of a sex toy. And there is a highly unconvincing character reversal in the final act. But this is a powerful, creepy, engaging piece of work.