Crime fiction: How Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison turned into a trailblazer
The young policewoman has a baptism of fire in Lynda La Plante’s latest novel, set in 1973
Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison
Jane Tennison is one of modern crime fiction’s great characters, a trailblazing protagonist who made her first appearance in Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect, in 1991. In Tennison (Simon & Schuster, £20) La Plante takes us back to east London in 1973, when Jane Tennison was a probationary WPC (or “plonk”, in the derogatory term used by her male colleagues). A combination of diligence, ambition, eye for detail and luck sees Tennison seconded to a CID investigation of the murder of a 17-year-old girl found naked and strangled in Hackney Marsh adventure playground, and soon Tennison is experiencing a baptism of fire as she is plunged into the world of prostitution, drug addiction and murder.
La Plante at times overdoes the naive Tennison’s immersion into police argot – every slang phrase must be translated for the sake of Jane, who is from the upmarket area of Maida Vale – but the author revels in portraying a place and time in which sexism, misogyny and racism are taken for granted. The investigation and a parallel plot detailing a bank heist provide a narrative framework that builds to an explosive denouement, but this is very much a personal journey as La Plante recounts how Tennison the doe-eyed optimist turns into the steely-eyed pragmatist loved by her fans.
Opening in 1981 in inner-city Dublin, Snapshots (New Island, €14.99) is the debut novel from prize-winning short-story writer (and barrister) Michael O’Higgins. The fertile backdrop includes the hunger strikes, the impending referendum on abortion and the heroin epidemic sweeping through Dublin, with O’Higgins creating a pacy, hard-boiled tale by examining the story from a number of perspectives.
Dick Roche, formerly of the “heavy gang”, is a Garda detective obsessed with a career criminal, Christy Clarke, who appears to be developing links with the IRA; Lillian is Clarke’s wife, and a long-suffering victim of domestic abuse; Fr Brendan is a charismatic priest with a dirty secret lurking in his closet. Strong on period detail, the story deftly blends police procedural with courtroom drama, although O’Higgins’s strength is in his characterisations: there are few conventional heroes to be found in Snapshots, which is peopled by characters who are weak, vain, desperate and greedy. It’s a powerful debut that brings to mind the work of Gene Kerrigan, although fans of the American crime novel might also detect the influence of the great George V Higgins.
In a very strong year for Irish crime-fiction debuts, Jo Spain’s With Our Blessing (Quercus, €17.99) is among the most assured. It opens gorily, with the discovery of an elderly nun crucified on a tree in Phoenix Park in Dublin. The gruff, avuncular Det Insp Tom Reynolds, of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, is assigned the case, which takes his team to the Sisters of Pity convent just outside the village of Kilcross, in Limerick – a former Magdalene laundry where secrets, Reynolds discovers, are almost as common as prayers.
The story is rooted in decades-old cruelty and abuse, but despite the vivid brutality with which Spain opens the novel the tale as a whole is a rather genteel affair, an old-fashioned harking back to Agatha Christie, with its quaint village cut off by snowstorms and the sinister convent standing in for the more conventional country house of Golden Age lore. (Spain specifically references The Murder on the Orient Express.) The apparently cosy tone is only skin deep, however: With Our Blessing picks at the scabs of recent Irish history to reveal raw and gaping wounds.
“Our society is a wasteland,” says Insp Frank Stave in Cay Rademacher’s superb debut novel, The Murderer in Ruins (Arcadia, £8.99). “We detectives are just clearing up the rubble.” The story opens in 1947, during an iron-hard winter, in a Hamburg that Allied bombers reduced to “the greatest ruined cityscape in Europe”.
When the corpse of a naked young woman is discovered in the rubble, Stave marshals his pitifully meagre resources to begin an investigation. It’s not long, however, before bodies murdered in a similar fashion begin to appear, and Stave realises he is pursuing a serial killer.
Based on historical events, The Murderer in Ruins – the first in a proposed trilogy – is a strong police procedural, although it’s in his depiction of postwar Hamburg that Rademacher truly excels. Thronged with starving locals, refugees from concentration camps and former Wehrmacht soldiers still returning from the Eastern Front, the once-proud city is a hauntingly bleak and desolate landscape, with Stave a kind of ghost poet and scapegoat for the Nazi legacy: “In a perverse sort of way he was relieved that his city and his life lay in ruins. It was just punishment of sorts.”
Anthony Horowitz incorporates some of Ian Fleming’s original material into Trigger Mortis (Orion, £18.99), a James Bond story that opens in 1957, shortly after the events of Goldfinger (1959). Bond is squiring Pussy Galore around London when M orders him to Germany, where the Russians – Smersh, to be precise – are planning to assassinate a British motor-racing champion, Lancy Smith, during a grand prix at the Nürburgring. Soon, however, Bond finds himself involved in a very different kind of race – the space race – as the cold war heads into orbit and Bond uncovers a plot to destroy the American launch programme.
Our hero is already “a bit of a dinosaur”, according to one of his colleagues, but “for Bond, the moral certainties remained the same”, and Horowitz certainly ticks all the Bond boxes in a fast-paced tale of motor racing, glamorous women, fairy-tale German castles and death-defying, Houdini-like escapes.
Bond himself, however, may prove a little too noble and squeaky clean for some purists. Horowitz’s slick, resourceful Bond is closer in tone to Pierce Brosnan’s smooth, ironical interpretation of 007 than, say, Daniel Craig’s rough diamond – or, for that matter, the superficially refined brute of Ian Fleming’s licensed-to-kill creation.
Declan Burke’s most recent novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House)