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Crime fiction: Joanne Harris’s A Narrow Door, plus this month’s other top titles

Including new books from Hilde Vandermeeren, Antti Tuomainen and Yulia Yakovleva

We hear a lot about the “likability” of fictional characters these days, a concept that Roy Straitley would likely dismiss as the worst kind of millennial tosh. First introduced by Joanne Harris in Gentlemen and Players (2005), Roy teaches classics at St Oswald’s grammar school for boys, and revels in his role as a kind of King Canute vainly attempting to stem the tide of progress. (Although, Roy being Roy, he would probably remind us at this point that Canute was being ironic, and was trying to demonstrate the futility of trying to hold back the waves.)

A Narrow Door (Orion, £19.99), the third novel to feature Roy Straitley after Different Class (2016), begins with Roy largely submerged, and drowning rather than waving: not only has St Oswald's appointed Rebecca Buckfast as its first headmistress in its 500-year history, but its previously narrow doors have been thrown so wide that even girls can now file through as pupils. All of which constitutes a disaster, as far as the misogynistic Roy is concerned. But then a corpse is discovered on the school grounds, a development that doesn't seem to surprise Ms Buckfast, nor worry her unduly.

The fusty surroundings of St Oswald’s provide the perfect setting for A Narrow Door, which is a deliciously old-fashioned novel that proceeds in the epistolary style, with Roy and Rebecca recording their growing antagonism in diary and letter.

Unfortunately, Roy has no way of knowing what the reader learns in the first few pages, which is that Rebecca Buckfast has already committed two murders – “one a crime of passion, the other a crime of convenience” – and that she has come to St Oswald’s with a very modern ambition, that of stripping it of “all its history, with all its relentless, patriarchal baggage”.


Is she at all likable as she wreaks her particular brand of havoc? No, she is not. Does she make for compulsive reading? Absolutely.

Hilde Vandermeeren's The Scorpion's Head (Pushkin Press, €9.99) has its fair share of unlikable characters. Michael, a contract killer, takes top billing. Commissioned by the mysterious Scorpio to kill Gaelle and her young son Lukas, Michael baulks at the last moment, thus signing his own death warrant: Scorpio immediately unleashes a horde of contract killers, forcing Michael to flee for his life.

Gaelle, meanwhile, is confined to a psychiatric hospital, where she is interrogated by the police, who believe she tried to kill Lukas and then failed to take her own life. But who could have taken out the contract on Gaelle and Lukas? Urged on by a guilty conscience, the penitent Michael vows to find out ...

Wildly improbable doesn’t even begin to cover it: indeed, there are times when you start to wonder if The Scorpion’s Head is intended to be read as a parody of the cruder kind of high-concept thriller, where the villains tend to disappear when they turn sideways-on.

The pages fly by, certainly, and Vandermeeren gives us plenty of twists and turns; whether you’ll care about any of the cliched characters is another matter entirely.

Antti Tuomainen has been reliably preposterous ever since he turned to comic crime fiction with The Man Who Died (2016). The Rabbit Factor (Orenda Books, €14.99) is his fourth crime caper, which opens with Henri Koskinen, an insurance actuary, being bequeathed an adventure park on the outskirts of Helsinki when his brother dies.

Henri isn’t what we might describe as a people person – he lives alone with his cat, who is called Arthur in honour of Arthur Schopenhauer, who, Henri reminds us, conceived of “life as a debt contracted at the begetting”. Still, his inability to fully experience human emotions (fear, mainly) becomes a distinct advantage when Henri realises the adventure park is deep in debt to loan sharks who insist that Henri has inherited his brother’s financial obligations. Unfortunately for the loan sharks, this runs contrary to Henri’s understanding of logic and reason, and so battle is joined . . .

It’s a ludicrous plot, of course, but Tuomainen has terrific fun with the robotic Henri, especially when our hero starts to experience inexplicable feelings for the adventure park’s manager, the part-time artist Laura. Henri’s attempts to explain his growing appreciation of art according to actuarial principles is worth the price of admission alone.

Offbeat and quirky, fast-paced and occasionally profound, The Rabbit Factor doesn’t quite repeat the inspired lunacy of Tuomainen’s own Palm Beach Finland, but it does confirm his status as the Nordic Carl Hiaasen.

Art appreciation also plays a part in Yulia Yakovleva's Punishment of a Hunter (Pushkin Vertigo, €14.99), which takes its title from Paulus Potter's 17th-century Dutch masterpiece (each chapter is prefaced with a delightful hand-drawn sketch of one of the painting's panels).

Set in Leningrad in the early 1930s, the novel opens with Detective Zaitsev of the Criminal Investigation Department confronted by what appears to be an unmotivated locked-room murder, that of a woman with no known enemies. Hard on its heels comes another apparently unmotivated murder, which is when Zaitsev begins to realise that the victims are being manipulated after death – posed, in fact, as if waiting for their portrait to be painted.

What follows is a fascinating story that fully earns the small shoal of red herrings Yakovleva sends our way; equally impressive is her vivid depiction of 1930s Leningrad as Stalin’s purges begin to take effect and the city’s citizens realise that some comrades are considerably more equal than others.

Beautifully translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and billed as the first in a “Leningrad Confidential” series of detective novels, Punishment of a Hunter establishes Yulia Yakovleva as a talent to watch.

Chris Offutt's The Killing Hills (No Exit Press, £16.99) is set in the Kentucky backwoods. Here Mick Hardin, home on leave from the base in Germany where he serves as a homicide investigator with the US army, finds himself drawn into a murder investigation when the local sheriff – his sister, Linda – asks for his help. Happy to be distracted from the fact that his wife is pregnant by another man, Mick starts asking questions in the remote Kentucky "hollers", or steep-sided valleys, where a man is as likely to be shot (or bitten by a mule) as receive a straight answer.

Mick Hardin is billed as “an investigator-hero unlike any in fiction”, which is only true if we ignore a certain Jack Reacher. Marketing quibbles aside, The Killing Hills is a tersely written novel in the grand tradition of the American private eye yarn, with Hardin deployed to explore the idiosyncrasies of rural Kentucky as he goes about his investigation.

If Lee Child and Daniel Woodrell collaborated on a hillbilly noir, the result would probably read a lot like this: tough, laconic, emotionally engaging and blackly funny, The Killing Hills makes for a very satisfying read.

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