Crime fiction: February’s new releases

The Girl on the Train; Stumped; Behind God’s Back; Everything I Never Told You

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train will wrong-foot even the most experienced crime fiction readers. Photograph: Anna Huix/New York Times

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train will wrong-foot even the most experienced crime fiction readers. Photograph: Anna Huix/New York Times

 

Rachel Watson, a hard-drinking divorcee, is at first glance a conventional crime-fiction protagonist, but while Rachel, the main narrator of Paula Hawkins’s bestselling debut, The Girl on the Train (Doubleday, €15.99), does turn into an amateur sleuth, she is anything but a cliched investigator. Sliding into alcoholism in the wake of her divorce from Tom, Rachel is an idealist who creates a fantasy life for Scott and Megan, a married couple she spies on from her commuter train every morning.

What gives Rachel’s fantasy a poignant turn is the fact that Scott and Megan live a few doors down from Rachel’s old home, where Tom, with whom Rachel remains obsessed, now lives with his new wife, Anna, and their baby, a poignancy that is given an added twist by Megan’s own account of her life, which is far from idyllic.

When Megan is reported missing, the police suspect Scott. This infuriates Rachel, as she knows she could prove Scott’s innocence if only she could recall the details of the night Megan disappeared, which remain tantalisingly out of reach in the blur of an alcoholic blackout. Cleverly blending the more intriguing aspects of two recent high-profile “domestic noir” novels, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, this is an impressively assured debut which remains rooted in a believable reality as Hawkins depicts the more sordid excesses of Rachel’s descent into alcoholism and self-delusion yet still manages to provide Rachel’s quest for truth and justice with a plausible motive. The result is a complex and increasingly chilling tale courtesy of a number of first-person narratives that will wrong-foot even the most experienced of crime fiction readers.

Billed as screwball noir and set during the concluding days of an Irish election campaign, Rob Kitchin’s Stumped (280 Steps, €11.99) is a comic crime caper that opens with Grant, an English academic based at Maynooth University, being presented with an ultimatum: return an unspecified package stolen from a Dublin gang lord or see his friend Sineád returned to him in severed pieces. Enlisting the help of the wheelchair-bound Mary and her camp friend Declan, the hapless, bumbling Grant sets out to do the right thing, aided by venal politicians, low-life thugs, tabloid journalists, a rockabilly cop and a platoon of drag-queen farmers.

Kitchin, an English academic based at Maynooth University, offers a delightfully preposterous tale in his fourth novel, even if the story is neither bleak enough to qualify as true noir nor full of the crackling dialogue we associate with classic screwball comedy. But Kitchin maintains a cracking pace and generates plenty of humour by switching rapidly between the perspectives of a swarming host of outlandish characters, very few of whom are anywhere near as clever or competent as they believe themselves to be.

Humour isn’t necessarily the first quality we associate with Scandinavian crime fiction, but there’s a deliciously dry comedy at the heart of Harri Nykänen’s Behind God’s Back (Bitter Lemon Press, €12.99). One of only two Jewish cops in all of Helsinki, Ariel Kafka investigates the murder of a Jewish businessman against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi violence in Finland. Unconcerned that he might be compromised by his rigorous flouting of religious law, Ariel quickly finds that the case has a much more personal aspect than he might have expected.

Told in the first person, and given a crisp translation by Kristian London, Nykänen’s second outing in English for Ariel Kafka is a hugely entertaining blend of police procedural and spy thriller as Kafka finds himself butting heads with the Russian mafia, Finnish security police and Mossad. Behind God’s Back is an excellent example of what Finnish crime fiction has to offer as it steps out of the shadow of its Scandinavian neighbours.

Opening in 1977 in Middlewood, Ohio, Celeste Ing’s debut, Everything I Never Told You (Black Friars), begins with a dramatic declaration: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” The 16-year-old Chinese-American daughter of James and Marilyn Lee, Lydia is discovered drowned in a lake, but as the police investigation proceeds it remains unclear whether she died by murder, suicide or tragic accident.

Indeed, rather than advance the plot to the point where a motive and perpetrator are revealed, Ing is more interested in exploring who Lydia was behind the masks she wore to deceive her parents, her siblings and her friends. Ethnicity and assimilation (or the lack of it) are crucial to the story: James Lee is a Chinese-American professor of American culture who has spent his life trying to blend into a society that labels him an outsider; Marilyn was frustrated in her youth in her ambition to become a doctor and channels her aspirations through her daughter.

What emerges is a heartbreaking portrait of a teenager struggling to cope with unbearable and conflicting pressures brought to bear by her parents while also trying to deal with adolescence, in a story that brings to mind Megan Abbott’s subversive take on the crime novel. Everything I Never Told You is an affecting, compelling tale of quiet desperation.

Declan Burke’s latest novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House)

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