Andrew Martin's crime fiction is marked by playful intelligence, mordant wit and a stylish way with a sentence. His new novel, The Winker (Corsair, £16.99) is a deliriously dark entertainment set during the baking hot summer of 1976.
Lee Jones is a faded rock star whose one record, The Picture Show, was “the soundtrack of 1971 with its admixture of summery pop with sinister undertow”. Lee, himself an elfin admixture of Bolan and Bowie, “a very perfect little unit” in a white suit, has a Debordian situationist programme in mind: to wink at selected women and then murder them.
Meanwhile in Paris (and Nice), Charles Underhill, “a controlled English homosexual of about fifty,” has received a threatening postcard of a rowing race on the river at Oxford, and recalls the murder he committed in the town 25 years previously, and the heady, existential freedom he felt in its aftermath. Steering a course between these two beauties is Howard Miller, a young English writer whose diffident, chippy self-consciousness provides welcome relief from the insanity.
The seediness and shabby elegance of 1970s London is brilliantly rendered, the murders are genuinely upsetting, which is rarely the case in the genre, and if you are of what might be called, mojo-reading age, there are a lot of very funny rock music jokes. Martin also writes uncannily well about songwriting and evokes Lee’s artistry in vivid, persuasive detail. The Winker (pun intended) reads like a nasty, eccentric 1970s film starring David Hemmings and Charles Gray, with purples and browns the keynote shades and T. Rex bopping on the soundtrack. I didn’t want it to end.
"Cities sleep with their lights on, as if they're afraid of the dark." So, following a body-strewn prologue, begins the new Mick Herron novel, Joe Country (John Murray, £14.99), in the lyrical, apostrophising register that is very much a feature of his prose, if less frequently noted than his comic mode ("You're not an elected MP. You're a former home secretary. In the public view, that's a little below being a former Blue Peter presenter.")
And there’s a lot of darkness to be afraid of, from a Slow Horse having child porn planted on his laptop and “PAEDO” carved across his cheeks to the projected, horribly plausible privatisation of the intelligence services, framed as a sensible reaction to a post-Brexit lack of investment and reliable European allies.
If you haven’t caught up with the Jackson Lamb series yet, Joe Country is an excellent place to start as all of this marvellous writer’s strengths are here on display; scabrous comic dialogue; seamless plotting; bravura set piece; action sequences; and a quicksilver ability to shift through the gears from tragedy to farce.
Of the recurring cast of characters, I was particularly pleased to see Catherine Standish foregrounded once more. The treatment of her alcoholism serves as a harrowing motif and leads to an unforgettable climactic scene in her flat, with Jackson Lamb the uninvited guest and witness. And ultimately, it is Standish who is left to reflect, in the dusty drear of Slough House, in the wake of a slew of corpses, “that Spook Street wasn’t all boring reports in Manila folders. That Joe Country lay just around the corner.”
There are two stories in Alex North's The Whisper Man (Penguin, Michael Joseph, £12.99). One is about what appears to be a reactivated serial killer who preys on small boys and it is as creepy and twisty as the early Thomas Harris novels it is influenced by, while remaining unusually credible at a psychological level. The other is an extraordinarily well-written, deeply moving, multi-generational saga about fathers handing misery onto sons, and how the ensuing coastal shelf might yet be drained. The stories are deftly marshalled and interwoven by Alex North with a mastery that would be astonishing were he a debut novelist. In fact North is also the prolific Leeds-based author Steve Mosby, and this might well be the finest book he has written.
Caz Frear's debut, Sweet Little Lies, the winner of the 2017 Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition, introduced us to her gutsy heroine, Detective Cat Kinsella. Stone Cold Heart (Zaffre, £7.99) picks up the story; more precisely, it picks up Kinsella's tortuous backstory; her petty criminal father; his involvement with the disappearance and murder of an Irish woman whose brother is now Cat's boyfriend; and his full dress criminal colleague Frank Hickey, whose behaviour towards Cat is growing ever more menacing. The case Cat catches is the murder of a young Australian woman. The underlying condition the book explores is the abusive and controlling behaviour of narcissistic men and its effect on the women who endure them. Kinsella is an engaging protagonist and her breezy, irreverent voice gives the book its distinctive, word in your ear flavour. At times this can feel relentless in a gobby, total recall kind of way, and there are exhausting incident room scenes that could have easily been trimmed. Indeed, at 471 pages the book is at least a third too long. But it has great pace and energy and leaves the reader on a nicely judged cliffhanger.
Guillaume Musso is the number one bestselling author in France (me neither) and The Reunion (W&N, £14.99) is the first of his books to be published in the UK, in a crisp translation by Frank Wynne. Twenty-five years ago, 19-year-old Vinca Rockwell, a student at the Lycée International Saint-Exupéry, ran away to Paris with her philosophy teacher, Alexis Clément. Neither was ever seen again. Vinca's closest friends – Thomas, Maxime and Fanny – have not spoken since the night she vanished. Now they've all reassembled on the Côte d'Azur for the school's 50th anniversary reunion, where they fear the truth about their friend's disappearance will be revealed.
Thomas Degalais, the central character, is now a writer, and it is through his eyes and memory that the story unfolds. But Thomas’s eyes often deceive him, and his memory is partial and fallible, and the twists and turns come at him fast as the tightly constructed narrative delves deep into a succession of family plots. Musso always finds time to break from the action for a Gallic passage or two of lush scene setting or philosophical musing. Thomas has never met a literary reference he didn’t think worth sharing and in a showdown scene, a villain quotes Stendhal. It’s all very French then, romantic and pretentious and borderline silly, but hugely enjoyable and beautifully staged, with an audacious authorial coup at the death that is simply breathtaking.