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Crime fiction highlights: not just crime, but the causes of crime

Nicola White's Irish trilogy concludes plus Louise Welsh, Charlie Higson, Sam Blake and Lan Samantha Chang

The best crime novels tend to investigate not only specific crimes but the culture – the society, the socioeconomic environment – in which they arise. Such has been the case with Nicola White's trilogy of police procedurals based on true Irish crimes: The Rosary Garden (2013), A Famished Heart (2020) and her latest, The Burning Boy (Profile Books, £8.99).

The novel opens in Dublin in 1986, which “had been a quiet year for the murder squad. Not that Dublin had turned into Eden; there were all too many heroin deaths, suicides, punishment beatings by crime gangs or paramilitaries.” The discovery of a body in the Phoenix Park, near an area notorious at the time for being a cruising spot in “the twilight world of the homosexual”, is not a crime to set the murder squad’s pulse racing, until it is discovered that the victim, Kieran Lynch, was himself a garda, which is when the powers that be immediately begin disassociating themselves from the crime.

Undeterred by the entrenched homophobia of fellow gardaí and the country at large, detectives Vincent Swan and Gina Considine begin probing the victim’s background, shining a light into dark corners that vested interests would prefer to remain in the shadows. The result is a delicately constructed web in which the detectives’ personal and professional lives intersect with their investigation to devastating effect.

Chaos is a recurring motif in Remember My Name – Brioni has a tattoo of the Buddhist unalome symbol

The Rosary Garden, White’s debut novel, won the Dundee International Book Prize, and her storytelling has only improved since then. The only downside is that The Burning Boy is the concluding instalment of a trilogy; where Nicola White goes from here is a matter of the keenest anticipation.


Sam Blake,who established her reputation with a series of Dublin-set police procedurals featuring Garda detective Cat Connolly, has recently turned to writing standalone psychological thrillers. Remember My Name (Corvus, £12.99) opens with Cressida Howard overhearing an incriminating snippet of conversation during a phone call with her entrepreneur husband, Laurence.

Furious that he is having an affair, she commissions Brioni O’Brien, a tech-savvy security expert, to electronically investigate Laurence’s activities. But when Brioni uncovers a murder – and its cover-up – in a suite of one of Laurence’s hotels, the two women quickly find their lives spiralling out of control.

Indeed, chaos is a recurring motif in Remember My Name – Brioni has a tattoo of the Buddhist unalome symbol, which for her represents chaos and how it might be tamed, or directed – and the novel charts Cressida’s transformation from a mild-mannered, middle-class matron into a formidable Amazon prepared to countenance all manner of disruption in order to protect her daughter from the consequences of Laurence’s untrammelled greed. Pacy, punchy and as twisty as the unalome symbol itself, Remember My Name is high-octane domestic noir.

The Second Cut (Canongate, £14.99) is Louise Welsh's follow-up to The Cutting Room, her award-winning debut from 2002. Welsh has published a number of novels since then, but here returns to the character of Rilke, a Glasgow antiques auctioneer who is unsurprised when a casual associate, hard-living party animal Jojo Nugent (who "looked a bit like Peter Lorre on acid"), is found dead of an overdose. When it becomes clear that Jojo is part of a pattern of gay men succumbing to a lethal new drug, Rilke is reluctantly drawn into investigating the death. He finds himself descending into an especially seamy corner of Glasgow's underworld.

Rilke is a deliciously cynical character – (“I felt nostalgic for my boyhood switchblade,” he observes at one point, having glimpsed himself in a mirror) – and a suitably morose and morbid guide to the back streets and alleyways of Glasgow. Welsh writes beautifully about decay and corruption – physical and moral – and the contrast between the sedate world of antiques and the brutality of the city’s netherworld is brilliantly observed, with Rilke, appropriately enough, an Orpheus-like character as he flits back and forth between the two.

Higson sets up his comedy caper scenario well, as we might expect, but once they're in place his characters aren't especially interesting

Best known as an author for his Young Bond series of novels, comedian Charlie Higson publishes his first adult crime novel for 25 years with Whatever Gets You Through the Night (Little, Brown, £14.99). The story centres on McIntyre, a professional fixer who travels to Corfu to rescue 15-year-old Lauren from the compound of a tech billionaire who sponsors a tennis programme that is effectively a cult imprisoning talented teenage girls.

A straightforward job by the coolly competent McIntyre’s standards – he packs a Glock, but declares his intention of defying Chekhov’s rule by not using it. That is, until Lauren’s drunken father gets involved, bleating about his helplessness and threatening to blow McIntyre’s cover. There’s also the issue of gang warfare McIntyre hasn’t reckoned on, between rival crews of Corfiots and Albanians; and then there’s Lauren herself, a young woman with very fixed views on being told what to do who is planning her own escape.

Higson sets up his comedy caper scenario well, as we might expect, but once they’re in place his characters aren’t especially interesting – most of what passes for character development comes via a series of rants that aren’t exactly scalpel-like in their dissection of human frailty, and are rarely humorous. (“He was waiting for the United Nations to propose a ban on human nature. It was like all this fuss about Prince Andrew. Why was everyone getting so worked up about that?”) Subplots abound, most of them populated by bumbling fools hopped up on hubris whose only real function is to distract attention from the inevitable conclusion to the central plot.

Hubris also plays a part in Lan Samantha Chang's The Family Chao (One, £16.99), in which a family patriarch, Leo "Big" Chao, overreaches in his bid to control his three very different sons – Dagou, Ming and James – and is murdered in the basement freezer of the Chinese restaurant he runs in Lake Haven, Wisconsin.

Who killed Leo and why are  integral to the story, of course; but as is the case with  The Burning Boy, the novel is equally interested in exploring the culture and society in which the murder occurred. The story investigates identity, the social role – real and perceived – of the immigrant, racism both covert and overt, and also asks hard questions about what is required to be sacrificed if the American dream is to be fully realised.

Conceived as a contemporary, Chinese-American retelling of The Brothers Karamazov, the novel is a family saga that looks outward and inward, employing the Chaos as avatars for all that might be lost during the transition from one culture to another: “lost money, lost home, lost country, lost languages, lost years, lost ancestors, lost stories, lost memories, lost hopes, lost lives ...”

Reminiscent of the work of the wonderful Celeste Ng, The Family Chao is a sprawling, powerful novel of love, hatred, loss and belonging.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)