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Crime fiction: Perfectly paced and plotted mysteries

New releases from Liz Moore, Jeanine Cummins, Jo Spain, Fiona Gartland and more

Crime fiction is concerned in the first instance with the detective and in the second with the criminal; the victim has traditionally come in a poor third. It is always easier and invariably more entertaining to pay attention to whodunit rather than to whom it was done.

Research in the genre too often amounts to an uninspiring catalogue of forensic detail and technical specifications, blinding readers with science they neither understand nor care about.

Two of this month's titles focus determinedly and empathetically on the victim's story, and employ meticulous research to frame and animate canvasses devoted to tumultuous human situations: heroin addiction in Philadelphia – Long Bright River (Hutchinson, £12.99) by Liz Moore; and the Mexican migrant crisis – American Dirt (Tinder Press, £14.99) by Jeanine Cummins.

“The first time I found my sister dead, she was sixteen.” So Mickey assures us, having established to her relief that the body she and her new partner find on the Gurney Street tracks in the Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington, home to 900 overdose victims in the last year, is not Kacey.


Kacey is missing though, and Mickey’s search for her, interwoven with the story of how one sister became a detective and a mother and the other ended up on the streets selling her body for drugs, forms the basis of the narrative and works as a perfectly paced and plotted mystery novel and as a psychologically coherent, morally persuasive broken family saga.

From the beginning, Mickey’s character seems provisional, incomplete in some way, and the novel’s genius is to synchronize the revelation of her family’s secret history with her gradual understanding of the lies she has told herself. Told in a crisp, propulsive first-person voice, Long Bright River is a detailed, realistic portrait of a city and an intimate, incredibly moving study of characters seemingly beyond repair. The first page of the novel is a list of names. I skipped past it, thinking it might be the author’s acknowledgements. When that list reappeared a few pages from the end, I saw what it was: a litany of the dead. “They were my friends, says Kacey ... All of them. Even the ones I didn’t know.”

American Dirt begins with the massacre of 16 members of Lydia Pérez’s family at a barbecue. Her mother and her journalist husband die, whose article about La Lechuza, the head of the Jardineros Cartel, provoked the attack. Knowing the cartel will not stop until they have murdered her and her eight-year-old son, Luca, Lydia takes off, abandoning their comfortable middle-class life in Acapulco. Midway through their journey, as she prepares to drop herself and her son on to the roof of one of the great trains – La Bestia – that will take them to El Norte, beyond the cartel’s clutches, Lydia understands that what she thought would be camouflage – to disguise themselves as migrants – has become reality. “She and Luca are actual migrants … All her life she’s pitied these poor people … that (they) would leave their homes, their cultures, their families and even their languages and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”

Epic in scale but always character focused, American Dirt is a vital, emotionally explosive novel which more than fulfils its author’s hope: that “when we see migrants on the news, we may remember: these people are people”.

Tom Lutz's Born Slippy (Repeater, £10.99) had me at the title and kept me for a while with its wry, deadpan tale of Frank Baltimore, who once "signed up for two night courses and, being high all the time, kind of forgot about them – literally forgot he was going to college".

Though now he is drinking and smoking less, reading the Great Books and planning a construction empire that will make his fortune. His early encounters with bumptious Liverpudlian immigrant Dmitry Heald are recounted in a men-behaving-badly mode that is initially amusing but gradually palls.

Lutz, who has published several travel books and is the founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, writes very well about many things – cities, building houses, literature – but Born Slippy eventually devolves into that well-worn story about the man who gets all the women but somehow manages to stay in touch with his assiduously cultivated melancholy. In an interview Lutz suggests the novel might best be viewed as an examination of the idea of toxic masculinity. If you feel that topic has been under-examined in American fiction, this is the book for you.

Jo Spain's Six Wicked Reasons (Quercus, £16.99) centres on the return of prodigal son Adam Lattimer to his home in Spanish Point, Co Wexford, the summoning of his siblings by their father, Frazer, and the fateful family boat trip during which Frazer is murdered.

Tacking back and forth between the murder investigation and the days preceding the crime before dropping into the deep past when the wickedness was first hatched, Six Wicked Reasons is a dazzling performance.

Spain’s skill in marshaling her diverse cast of deftly-drawn characters perhaps owes something to her recent adventures in the screen trade (as no doubt does her delightfully catty depiction of a cash-strapped film producer). An immensely accomplished, stylishly written mystery with revelations up until the last page, Six Wicked Reasons is a terrific read.

Fiona Gartland's second novel, Now That You've Gone (Poolbeg Crimson, €9.99) is an engaging tale of family dysfunction, amateur pornography and murder featuring court stenographer Beatrice Barrington, the kind of woman who felt "there was more therapy in washing, drying and ironing clothes than in fashionable practices such as mindfulness".

Beatrice’s partner in detection is retired cop Gabriel Ingram, who boasts a prodigious appetite for daytime pints and terrifying pub lunches, and their tentative, almost-but-not-quite romance is a distinctive, gently comic feature of this enjoyable novel. I particularly liked the description of the sleazy estate agent/pornographer: “An egg-shaped, check-suited man with thin brown hair in a kind of fuzz on his head and a dubious-looking moustache.”

An upsetting family law case Beatrice is transcribing for her day job runs in parallel to the main plot; Gartland combines the two effectively to deliver an extremely well-worked mystery.