Crime fiction: I see plenty more Gone Girl/Girl on a Train grip-lit
Declan Hughes reviews ‘I See You’, ‘Lie With Me’, ‘I Don’t Like Where This Is Going’, ‘Out of Bounds’ and ‘Darktown’
‘Queen of Crime’ Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie is back in her fourth winning novel. Photograph: Awakening/Getty Images
In the four years since Gone Girl became the crime novel that ate the world, the demand for suburban noir, domestic suspense, “grip-lit” (call it what you will, just not grip-lit) shows no sign of abating. Indeed, when it emerged that Barack Obama had included The Girl on the Train on his summer reading list, to many it simply singled him out as the last person on earth left to read it.
I See You (Sphere, £12.99) contains sly allusions to both books. Clare Mackintosh’s follow-up to her bestselling 2015 debut, I Let You Go, opens with, yes, a woman on a train.
On her commute home, divorced mother of two Zoe Walker spots a grainy photo of herself in the classified section of a London newspaper, an ad she didn’t place. Women in the same series of classifieds are being stalked, robbed or raped; when one is found murdered, out of favour PC Kelly Swift wins a place on the unit charged with investigating the linked series of crimes.
Part psychological thriller, part police procedural, I See You is a compelling read. Mackintosh writes with insight about Zoe’s complicated family life (like Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, she has given her laid-off journalist, possible suspect partner a Moleskine notebook so he can work on his “novel”), while Kelly Swift is as stubborn and impetuous a detective as you could wish for.
The novel’s broader conceit – a website that enables men to gain access to the solitary routines of women and do as they choose to them – is ingenious and utterly chilling: rape culture writ large and commodified. I didn’t entirely buy the climax, but a devastating final twist casts a pitch-black shadow on all that has gone before.
The narrator of Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me (Mulholland Books, £14.99) is a broken-down writer whose best days are long behind him. Paul Morris’s novel has just been rejected, his 24-year-old girlfriend has left him, and he is about to be evicted from the rent-free flat in Bloomsbury that he has called home. “In short, I was forty-two, broke and facing the indignity of having to move in with my mother in East Sheen.”
A chance meeting with Andrew Hopkins, an old college friend whose sister may or may not have had a brief fling with Paul, throws him into the orbit of a prosperous set of lawyers. By degrees he affects to fall in love with rich widow, Alice Mackenzie, who invites him to summer with them in Greece, where they had all met one fateful night 10 years previously, and where things begin to go downhill fast.
Paul is a delightfully appalling shambles: a snappish, stingy, peevish snob, incapable of noticing a woman without sexualising her. Alice and her circle of wealthy Londoners are no picnic either (Andrew is a relentlessly good-humoured, self-righteous bully, and his wife runs a wool shop called Ripping Yarns).
Durrant writes with elegance, wit and a sharp eye for social nuance. She skilfully manipulates our sympathies in uneasy Highsmithian fashion, until the infernal bonfire of the ironies that is the dark, troubling finale. The result is a classy, sophisticated page-turner for grown-ups.
Wylie “Coyote” Melville, burnt-out professional therapist, and his ace poker-playing best friend Bay Lettique flee the craziness of south Florida to lie low in Las Vegas. When they see a woman fall from the balcony of her hotel on the Strip, Wylie cries murder. Soon they are embroiled in a case that rambles across the deserts of redneck Nevada but always has time to stop off for too many drinks before dinner.
From the character names alone, you can figure out what stable John Dufresne’s I Don’t Like Where This Is Going (Serpent’s Tail, £10) is from: by Crumley out of Leonard, with a tincture of Altman in the bloodline. Dufresne has a complex pedigree as writer; this novel and its predecessor, No Regrets, Coyote, are something of a departure for him. Still, he respects the genre as much as he transports it. When the plot finally takes off, it does so with explosive violence, and the novel’s climax in the subterranean tunnels of Las Vegas is spectacular.
On her 30th novel, and with the recent passing of PD James and Ruth Rendell, there is no one more deserving of the Queen of Crime mantle than Val McDermid. Out of Bounds (Little, Brown, £18.99) is the fourth novel to feature DCI Karen Pirie, the Edinburgh-based head of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit, and it is an accomplished and absorbing novel.
The murder of an eccentric loner in Kinross, a DNA link to a rape and murder in a Glasgow side street in 1996, and an apparent IRA bombing of a private plane in 1994 causing the deaths of four people: as McDermid’s countryman John Buchan would have said, find the connections between these disparate events and you have your thriller.
McDermid handles all this with consummate ease, of course, but it is the deftly drawn human encounters that make the book. From the glamorous Felicity Frye, dying decorously in Notting Hill, to the pinched old dear in the Wester Hailes tower block with the unexpected heart of gold, each is pitch perfect and memorable, as is Pirie’s gradual recovery from grief after the death of her partner, assisted by a bevy of spirited female friends. I would like to see a great deal more of DCI Pirie.
On his second day as one of the first black detectives in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, Officer Lucius Boggs enrages a woman whose house has been broken into by addressing her as “ma’am”.
“‘You blind, son? You see a ‘ma’am’ here? I look like a white lady to you?’
It had broken his heart.
A few months later, it had happened so many times he had gotten used to it.”
Boggs, the educated son of a preacher, and his streetwise partner are two of the eight-man squad of African-Americans charged with patrolling their own people in Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (Little, Brown, £16.99). Viewed with contempt by their own colleagues, the black cops are forbidden from arresting white suspects or driving a squad car; they can’t even operate from the same station house.
Mullen’s epic novel works both as a fast-paced, hard-boiled thriller with the sweep of LA Confidential and as a vivid depiction of systemic police racism and corruption, all the while alive to the complexities and subtleties surrounding class, religion and sex within the black community.
In this age of Black Lives Matter, a historical crime novel might well be the most topical book of the season.
Declan Hughes is the author of the Ed Loy series. His latest novel is All the Things You Are.