Crime Fiction: Comic turns on the mean streets and dangerous times to be a child
Reviews: Razor Girl, Closed Casket, Dr Knox, The Hermit, The Drowning Child
Alex Barclay: series heroine, FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce, returns in The Drowning Child, and becomes a more compelling character with each successive novel
Carl Hiaasen’s novels thrive on the everyday quirks and oddities of his native Florida, although Razor Girl (Sphere, €18.25) elevates Key West’s idiosyncrasies to the realms of the absurd.
Andrew Yancy, a mouthy detective exiled to reporting infestations on “the roach patrol”, goes in search of the missing Buck Nance, the politically incorrect star of reality TV show Bayou Brethren, his informal investigation embracing a woman with an inventive take on car-jacking, an extinct Native American tribe dating from 3,500 BC, and an elusive diamond engagement ring worth $200,000 (uninsured).
Hiaasen’s fans will expect a sub-plot detailing the environmental damage being wrought on his beloved Florida, which here involves coastal erosion and ‘beach renourishment’, although, as always, his recurring theme is the Sunshine State itself, “the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers”.
Comedy and crime fiction don’t always make for comfortable bedfellows, but here Hiaasen is in razor-sharp form as he blends satire into an entirely unconventional police procedural. The result is the kind of novel that might have emerged from an (admittedly unlikely) collaboration between Elmore Leonard and PG Wodehouse.
Set in Clonakilty in 1924, Closed Casket (HarperCollins, €24.99) is Sophie Hannah’s second Hercule Poirot novel, following The Monogram Murders (2014). Summoned to Cork by mystery writer Lady Athelinda Playford, Poirot and his chronicler Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard are present when Lady Playford reads out her new will, which leaves her fortune to her secretary, Joseph Scotcher, a man with only weeks to live.
When Scotcher is bludgeoned to death that night, and the murder witnessed by Scotcher’s fiancée, it seems as if Poirot’s little grey cells won’t be unduly taxed. Sophie Hannah’s reputation, however, is as an author of fiendishly complex psychological thrillers, and soon Poirot uncovers a cat’s cradle of possible motivations and long-standing grudges.
Some of the narrative machinations may ring a little false with Irish readers – would a Garda detective, in 1924, really act so deferentially to “the nobility”, an amateur sleuth and a Scotland Yard man? – but otherwise the ingenious solution to the mystery of Closed Casket represents another satisfying addition to the Agatha Christie canon.
Dr Knox (riverrun, €18.25), Peter Spiegelman’s sixth novel, opens with Adam Knox working at a Skid Row-adjacent health clinic in Los Angeles. When a woman dumps her traumatised five-year-old son in the clinic’s ER and then disappears, Knox takes it upon himself to track her down.
His investigation leads him to Russian pimps, sex traffickers and the private security firm protecting the interests of one of the city’s wealthiest citizens, as Knox finds himself walking the kind of mean streets that might have given Raymond Chandler nightmares.
A veteran of African war-zones, Knox isn’t immune to the lure of danger, a character trait that gives his private eye-esque adventure a thrilling edge, but also renders Knox – a nobly self-sacrificing doctor going to war against vested interests on behalf of a helpless child – a little too good to ring entirely true.
That said, Spiegelman has a good eye for the vivid image (a streetwalker is described as “an ornament off Charles Bukowski’s Christmas tree”), and his atmospheric depiction of a corrupt Los Angeles means that his sly reference to Chinatown feels both inevitable and entirely apt.
The debut novel from Danish author Thomas Rydahl, and the winner of the 2015 Glass Key Award for the Best Nordic Crime Fiction, The Hermit (One World, €22.50) opens on the island of Fuerteventura with the discovery of a young boy’s body in the boot of a crashed car.
Danish-born Erhard Jorgensen, taxi-driver and occasional piano tuner, is outraged when the police deliberately fudge the investigation into the child’s death on the basis that too long an inquiry would be bad for tourism, and sets out to discover the truth.
Jorgensen – the hermit of the title – makes for a very patient investigator, gradually chipping away at the lies and obfuscations, all the while ruminating on aging, exile and life lived in the margins.
His offbeat, melancholy observations set the tone for an intriguing variation on the amateur sleuth narrative, although an ill-advised sub-plot involving Erhard’s attempts to sustain a dying woman on a homemade life-support machine (“All in all, it’s not easy keeping someone alive,” Erhard observes blithely) rather undermines the novel’s realistic approach to the difficulties faced by a non-professional investigating a serious crime.
However, readers who are patient enough to work through an intricate plot will be rewarded with a fascinating exploration of the frequently sordid world that exists behind the Canary Islands’ tourist-friendly façade.
Alex Barclay’s series heroine, FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce, generally operates out of Denver, but The Drowning Child (Harper, €15.99) finds Bryce relocated to the Oregon town of Tate, where 12-year-old Caleb Veir has gone missing.
What begins as a standard investigation for the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team becomes increasingly sinister, however, as Bryce discovers that a number of children have died in mysterious circumstances in Tate, most of them by way of drowning.
Complicating matters is Bryce’s messy personal life, particularly the overwhelming guilt she feels for causing the deaths of her friends and colleagues in her previous case, Killing Ways (2015).
Ren Bryce becomes a more compelling character with each successive novel (this is her sixth outing), hardboiled and professional on the outside but – courtesy of Bryce’s unfiltered internal monologue – crippled with self-doubt and loathing on the inside.
She’s also irreverent, insolent and endearingly self-deprecating, such as when she compares herself to the iconic Clarice Starling: “No screaming lambs, but lots of fucking voices.”
Central to the appeal of The Drowning Child, however, is Barclay’s depiction of small-town America, a sharply observed valley of squinting windows that turns a blind eye to the perverse sickness at its very heart.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is the editor of Trouble is Our Business (New Island), an anthology of short stories by Irish crime writers